CEOs must lead from the top in the sustainability transition

By Ásthildur Hjaltadóttir, Chief Regional Officer, GRI

What this underlines is that, even when government policy commitments on climate change and net-zero fall short, there is an obligation — both moral and financial — for business leaders to act.

Against this backdrop, in November GRI held the third installment in our expert series on sustainable business leadership, with a session titled Leading from the top: the indispensable role of CEOs in sustainability. Bringing together a cohort of top CEOs from the Southeast Asia region, it shared perspectives on how to successfully implement business strategies that achieve the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental, social and financial performance. Outtakes from these leaders are included below.

A wakeup call for transformation

The 2021 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change torpedoed the myth that the climate crisis is a theoretical problem that may only impact future generations. Instead, it sharpened minds to the reality that we only have a six to eight year window before rising global temperatures will be unstoppable. As the UNGC-Accenture report underlined, there has also been a wakeup call for CEOs that the sustainability transformation has to start now.

The hugely influential position of CEOs in determining business strategy means that they can be among the most effective activists for sustainability, guiding their organizations to quicken the pace of change.

Dr. Pakorn Peetathawatchai, President of The Stock Exchange of Thailand, emphasized that it is incumbent upon the CEO to ensure that “sustainability is embedded across the value chain — not just to maximize profit but also to balance people and planet to ensure sustainable business growth.”

The sustainability mindset

But what shapes a CEO’s sustainability mindset? Do they assume their posts with a sustainability agenda from day one or is it catalyzed by business events over time?

“sustainability is not something a company can run away from, it is practice that needs to be embraced”

TG Limcaoco, President and CEO of the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), agreed on the value of reporting in advancing a company’s sustainability agenda: “Sustainability is a must. Set a goal, measure, report — what gets reported, gets done. But doing it is not enough. We have to do it fast.” Starting out with a typical financial-first mindset, he attributes his sustainability awakening to his experiences working for BPI, who have been a supporter of the Sustainable Development Goals since they were first introduced.

Communication is key

A truly sustainable CEO also recognizes and responds to the interests of all stakeholders, external and internal. TG added: “buy-in as an absolute necessity — ingrain sustainability into the strategy, make sure that everyone across the group buys into it, and present programs to ensure that investors and other constituents understand what you do.”

Collaborating for a sustainable future

Even when a business has a sustainably focused CEO at the helm, they need support from others to truly effect the change that is needed to secure lasting, sustainable outcomes. As Sir David Attenborough said in his address at COP26, “if working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it”.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As Chief Regional Officer, Ásthildur Hjaltadóttir oversees the work of GRI’s seven Regional Hubs as well as being responsible for the Content Development and Program Delivery teams. She has been with GRI for more than 15 years in a wide variety of roles, including previously managed GRI’s report services, training and coaching departments. Prior to GRI, Ásthildur worked in international development roles in Belgium and the Netherlands. She holds degrees in Political Science & Government, and English Language & Literature, from the University of Iceland.

GRI is the independent international organization that helps businesses and other organizations communicate and understand their sustainability impacts.