Demands from Millennials and Generation Z for meaningful jobs with socially-aware employers are often dismissed as the idealism of youth.
Were you idealistic when you started your careers?
E: I don’t think I started with an idealistic mindset. I have always been interested in having an impact on the world but I was never under any illusion that I would have that impact within the first five years.
I came from a liberal arts background and what I wanted was exposure to a wide range of areas. I wanted concrete training, and I wanted access to working with a really smart, driven group of people. By going into consulting I got all of those things. Now, four or five years into my career, I am beginning to ask myself how I will put that training to use in the most impactful and responsible way.
B: I have a finance background and so the one thing I wanted was an international company where my job would be about more than just the numbers. What attracted me to Unilever was that I knew and understood the products I was working on. Whether it was a tub of margarine or ice cream they were products that I consumed so I felt a sort of attachment to my work.
But when I joined, there wasn’t a sustainability agenda. Then two years into my time there, there was a new CEO and that is when the changes started to happen.
How did the changes feel to you as a relatively junior employee?
B: We’d heard that the new CEO had a different strategy, but not much had changed in the organisation. Then it started to filter down through senior management. But it was really only when my manager said to me, ‘You will now have a sustainability target’ that I started to feel a real connection with it.
That was the turning point – sustainability was a target. It was no longer about short-term profitability. It was about ‘in our value chain where do we think we can be more sustainable?’ For example, I was working on the margarine category and we started asking questions like, ‘Where are we sourcing our oils from? Is that the most sustainable source? Why don’t we work with our farmers to increase capacity, get the relevant sustainability accreditation, and improve their operations?’
Eleanor, can you imagine similar conversations going on in a consulting firm?
E: The underlying ethic of my consulting firm was putting the interests of the clients first, and I think that came through consistently, even when it meant giving difficult news, or walking away at certain times, or saying no to certain things.
But how that relates to sustainability is more difficult. Does ‘what is best for the client’ refer to their bottom-line for the next five years, or their sustainability for the next 30? I don’t think people are fully aligned on the answer to that question yet.
What do you think it will take for people to become aligned with it?
B: I think sustainability is all good and well if there is a leader, a CEO who is driving it or an organisation within a sector that is driving it. But it is only once it becomes a collective effort that things will really shift. Because if the majority of companies are still focused on short term quarterly profits it is not really going to move in the greatest scheme of things.
I also think that we should not expect perfection. Even with Unilever’s sustainability focus they have critics in other areas; Mars too, with its Economics of Mutuality agenda, is constantly being reminded that a large part of its business is selling candy to kids. But I would rather have imperfect champions than none at all.
How do we build collective effort towards sustainable business in companies beyond just the CEO?
E: I think what struck me about my first couple of years of work is just how responsive you are to your environment, and to your incentives. The first time that really came to light for me was when I was working on a big transformation project. It was exciting, one of my first projects, and I bragged a little bit about the scale of it around the dinner table with family. Afterwards my mother pulled me aside and just reminded me that in business transformations people often lose their jobs.
I think the reason that hadn’t been on my mind much was that I hadn’t been close to that particular aspect of the work. And the further you are from the end-point of a system, the harder it is to see the impact you are having. In fact, I think the higher up you are the harder it is to see, and that applies to senior executives and CEOs as well.
So something that I have grown to see as critical to acting responsibly and sustainably is to spend time at the end points of the system you are working in. If it is not in your role then you should build it in; take time out to go and understand the impact of your work. If you don’t physically go to the source - whether that is on your frontline or in your supply chain - you will be guessing at what is actually going on.
I have done this with the next role I am taking on – I am extending my secondment just one year more before going back to consulting. I will be working with the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut to facilitate systems change that helps workers to better meet the needs of families, and in that role I will spend 80% of my time in welfare offices working directly with social workers, and only 20% in central office.
You’re just one individual, though. How many other people think the same way?
E: Well, we are moving from a world where everyone worked at the same place for 30 years to a world where we may have over 15 jobs throughout the course of our careers. Whenever you are thrust into a different context it makes you notice things about your last context that maybe weren’t obvious at the time. So I do have hope. I think it is on the whole a really good thing that we are moving around a lot more because I think we bring a wider perspective to the roles we go into.
What would you say to leaders about how they should effect change within their organisations?
B: First I would want to talk to the shareholders. There is a misconception from the shareholder perspective that sustainability involves sacrificing stability or share price. It actually doesn’t – it is just that the time frames need to change a little bit. But shareholders need to understand this because if they don’t support the CEO, the CEO can’t even start to get their leadership team on board, let alone the rest of the organisation.
E: Yes, and then my advice to leaders is to have the really difficult conversations about the purpose of your business – that is, purpose beyond the tagline and purpose beyond shareholder value alone. Have that conversation and make it hard, align on what your purpose is beyond that one metric and then make sure that it cascades down and gets embedded, as Barati said, in the incentives.
I don’t have a problem with companies adopting a very lofty overall purpose as long as they can very clearly explain how their strategic actions and choices contribute to that purpose.
B: I agree. A visionary purpose sounds great and you can sell your company on that. But if you are unable then to go to the next level, and to the one below that, so that everyone in the organisation feels that they can identify with it and you have got clear actions on how they are adding towards the purpose then it is just not good enough.
What impact do you think doing an MBA and doing an MBA at Oxford has had on your thinking?
B: I remember, just before applying, watching a webcast with the Dean, and he said, ‘if you want to do an MBA to get the next job and to get a promotion, to move into another industry, then there is a whole range of MBAs to choose from. But if you are interested in changing the world then Oxford is the place for you.’ I have never heard any other business school say that.
In addition, Saïd Business School has a very big Africa focus – huge. 11% of the class is from Africa which is the biggest of any top global MBA programme. And the School is very supportive: they don’t just pay lip service, they walk the talk and offer us a lot of pre-MBA and post-MBA advice and help. They are on the ground and they understand the dynamics of the continent, and that was what sold it for me.
E: I agree with Barati about its being a different type of business school. That has been brought home to me when I have spent time with friends at other business schools, which really seem to me to be lagging behind where the business community itself is now on issues of purpose and sustainability.
I did the 1+1, so combined my MBA with a Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree. For both degrees I’ve valued the opportunity to interrogate issues ‘at the source’ rather than in the light of an organisational culture. But the big thing that the MBA has given me is the confidence to question the status quo, particularly in areas such as finance and accounting, where complexity is often used as a mask. It has been useful to learn some of the language and the concepts so that I can really question whether the emperor is wearing no clothes!
Any final thoughts?
E: Coming back to School has reinforced the idea that for structures to change you have to change. And you have to change not in 20 years, but now. That can be in small ways – it can mean choices of roles, but also just the way you structure your job or your team -- but if you are not doing anything differently don’t expect anything to be different going forward.
B: For me it comes back to the need for a collective movement. I can talk about change and so can Elly, but until all the MBA classes, all businesses and their leaders, and all shareholders, realise the importance of long-term sustainability, real change will not take root.