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Companies must find their Stewards of the Future to survive and thrive

If we as leaders, directors, investors and simply human beings don’t see ourselves as stewards of the future, we are letting down our employees, our customers and our suppliers.

showing the way


"Uneasy is the head that wears the crown." — Henry IV, Part II, by William Shakespeare

To say we live in interesting times in 2022 is an understatement. The geopolitical landscape alone has never looked more complex:

  • A brutal war in Ukraine is costing thousands of lives and has created 4 million refugees and counting
  • Inflation is rising at breakneck speed
  • Food shortages are growing
  • The climate crisis continues to accelerate with devastating short and long-term effects, including on biodiversity
  • COVID-19 is anything but eradicated, with new waves breaking monthly

That’s just for starters.

In times of such trouble, people look for leadership. That is true at home, in government and especially at companies. Board directors must think beyond short-term profit and shareholder needs if their companies and our planet is to survive the collective challenges we face and go on to thrive in the future.

It has never been more important and urgent for board directors to consider all the environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities in play that connect all these complex geopolitical factors. We need leaders that have the necessary information and insights so that they gain the foresight to have proper oversight of their companies.

In short, we need to develop stewards of the future, which is at the heart of my new book.

Looking for leadership

Every time we as board directors or senior leaders make a decision, we must think about the potential impact of that decision on all our direct and indirect stakeholders. If we as leaders, directors, investors and simply human beings don’t see ourselves as stewards of the future, we are letting down our employees, our customers and our suppliers. More important, we are letting down our children and destroying their futures.

If we as leaders, directors, investors and simply human beings don’t see ourselves as stewards of the future, we are letting down our employees, our customers and our suppliers.

At Competent Boards, we are passionate believers in this pathway of ESG and climate-related education for directors, investors, executives and senior business leaders around the world. Our ESG Designation Program covers topics ranging from climate change, human rights and supply chain challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), cybersecurity, anti-corruption and stakeholder engagement. So many people who have taken our program have told us afterwards what a positive impact it had on them personally and professionally.

Pioneers at Davos

The #CompetentBoardsMovement began in 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I was there with Paul Polman (former Unilever CEO), Jim Hagemann Snabe (chair of Siemens and Maersk) and Torben Möger Pedersen (CEO of PensionDanmark), to name but a few. We wanted to change the mindset of current leadership from "Are we here to extract every dollar and last cent?" to "Are we here to ensure that everything we do has a greater positive impact?"

At that time, people thought of stewardship in terms of the assets. In reality, we are all potential stewards of our individual and collective futures within our areas of expertise.

In three short years, our movement has grown exponentially. We have worked with and alongside board directors and senior business leaders from every continent (with the possible exception of Antarctica). There is demand for this knowledge and education, plus the passion of our attendees, is what motivates us to deliver more each day.

Leaders as listeners

A key stakeholder group for stewards of the future is their employees, the raw talent that brings their company to life. A growing number of your people will be looking beyond the paycheck every month. They will want to know and buy into your company’s purpose and agree that their personal values align with the company.

They will want to know what your impact is on the communities around you. And they will want to know you are not doing something that will harm future generations. They want to be part of the solution to our planet’s problems. Not the problems.

For younger millennials and Generation Z workers, they not only want but demand a focus on social impact. They want to be in an ethical organization. If they don’t see it in yours, they won’t work for you. It's that simple.

Stakeholder activism has increased rapidly in the past few years. Major companies have had their plans disrupted as a result of taking the time early on in projects to listen to those outside the company’s four walls. If these people care enough about your company to raise concerns and even protest, then you should care enough as a steward about them to take time and listen. That listening will build more trust, more loyalty and more goodwill.

Fresh perspectives

Age should not be a barrier for our new stewards of the future. Every company needs fresh perspectives, and often younger people are willing to share their opinions, if you let them.

You can do that in lunch discussions, roundtable talks or even set up a shadow advisory board from a small group of young people. Reverse mentoring can also be productive, the master learning from the apprentice instead of the traditional balance of workplace power.

Don’t rule out younger people’s views because they don’t have enough experience. Good teams and good companies have a balance, and their fresh eyes could provide new opportunities and new solutions for your company. There's nothing better than empowerment.

We all need to rethink and there are so many questions, such as:

  • How can we keep working from home?
  • How can we rethink our supply chain?
  • How do we relate to our customers?
  • What is the environmental impact of our decisions?

Like it or not, youth are the future. If you want to be a sustainable company for the long run, then listen to that future now.

Guiding principle

In the book, and in our programs, I talk a lot about the Seventh Generation Principle as a philosophy to live by. This old Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) way of thinking addresses how your current decisions could affect the future. They go by the maxim that any decisions we make in our lifetime should result in a better world seven generations from now.

That means our stewards of the future in our companies must be courageous and wise. Forget short-termism, at least without also taking the long view about how we treat our world so that we can leave it better for future generations.

If you can communicate that purpose with conviction, you are well on the way to becoming a good leader for the 21st century.

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