Welcome to the era of the Chief Stretch Officer

The Elkington Report

Welcome to the era of the Chief Stretch Officer

Corporate leadership must commit to much more ambitious stretch goals to confront the urgency of climate issues.

As my body hit the icy Norwegian water, my brain instantly switched into survival mode. It was late May, and I was out on a small island with several leading sustainable business experts.

The sea into which I had just dived was a scalp-splitting 10 degrees Celsius and alive with jellyfish of various hues and sizes. Still, with former Greenpeace head Paul Gilding filming me from the dock, I felt that I had to take the plunge.

Later, as I thawed, it struck me that members of the Global C-Suite, the top teams of the world’s 1,000 most powerful businesses, also must take a similar plunge, adopting what we call tomorrow’s Stretch Agenda.

The agenda emerged from a short report that flowed from research backed by the Generation Foundation linked to Al Gore and David Blood’s firm Generation Investment Management. We thought the report might become a white paper to complement Generation’s new white paper, Allocating Capital for Long-term Returns (PDF).

But then one of our team proposed attempting something totally new for us. Why not write a play, one team member challenged, a dramatization of an extraordinary board meeting? So, in the spirit of adventure, we did.

Favorably reviewed May 20 by GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower, the result is called “The Stretch Agenda: Breakthrough in the Boardroom.” The response from companies has been equally encouraging. When we explained the approach to a senior vice president of one telecom giant, for example, she promptly wondered if we could stage an adapted version of the play for her top team.

The catch: We had no idea what the response would be.

The search for a new kind of CSO

Throughout all permutations of “The Stretch Agenda,” one theme has stayed consistent: encouraging a growing number of corporate boards and C-suites to stretch their horizons and ambitions toward long-term sustainability. It's an alignment shared by other high-profile initiatives, such as the U.N. Global Compact's new board engagement program.

To get to the heart of this challenge, we conjured Indra Mistry, a former investment banker who is a central figure in “The Stretch Agenda.” She is joining the company as a CSO — originally billed as a Chief Sustainability Officer, although she prefers “Chief Stretch Officer.”

During a recent webinar to mark the launch of the U.N. board engagement program, she presented a five-point framework, easily denoted by the acronym RATIO, which assumes that a truly sustainable business must track to improve the ratios between its actual and sustainable levels of environmental, social and governance performance.

The R stands for reality, acknowledging that many boards and C-suites are insulated from critical aspects of emergent market realities. She recalled the film “The Matrix,” where one pill keeps you in the world of illusion and another exposes the true reality.

Once a top team has a better grip on what tomorrow’s bottom line demands of them, they must move to A, deciding on its level of ambition. Greed may not be good, Mistry acknowledged, but ambition can be — and she pointed to Google X as an interesting example.

This, in turn, leads to the T, for Target setting. How can top teams set science-based targets that truly stretch the business over time?

“Remarkably,” she noted, “few companies currently set their goals and targets in the context of global goals and planetary boundaries.” She spotlighted the Future-Fit Business Benchmark as one possible tool.

Next comes I, for Incentives, both financial and non-financial, internal and external. She recalled that a 2013 U.N. Global Compact study found that only 8 percent of 2,000 companies surveyed had linked executive compensation to sustainability performance.

In relation to external incentives, a company may try to influence the policy and tax environments in which it operates to ensure more sustainable Outcomes, which is where the O comes in. Mistry notes that there are hugely valuable lessons to be learned from the new breed of impact investors about how to define, prioritize, track, measure and reward desired outcomes.

Mainstreaming the stretch agenda

While the RATIO concept will be key for implementation of “The Stretch Agenda,” wider outreach also is underway.

Our first launch event was the Bonn Summit on Global Transformation, where I did one of two TED-style kick-off presentations. The second was in Seoul, where I keynoted the U.N. Global Compact’s Leaders Summit on the post-2015 agenda. Both were encouraging, but then the third saw that icy dip.

A long-standing hero of mine has been Norwegian Jørgen Randers, co-author of 1972’s Limits to Growth study, which began to provide a statistical base for modern environmentalism. So imagine my delight when he invited me to contribute to his book “2052,” subtitled "A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years,” pitched at global leaders, where I wrote an essay on a stretch future for the military.

That led to an invitation from Per Espen Stoknes to contribute an essay to what Germans call a Festschift book, celebrating Randers' 70th birthday — and his decades of work on the sustainability front. This is titled “Science-based Activism,” with my contribution considering how scientists can strike a better balance between the rigorous protocols of science and the growing need to speak up on critical issues such as climate change.

This is a growing dilemma for people such as James Hanson. A copy of the Festschrift book was handed to Randers at a conference on Green Economics and Science-based Activism held at BI, the Oslo-based business school. Happily, the Volans concept of the Breakthrough Decade, from 2016 through to 2025, took center stage.

That’s where the recurring theme of the need for the Global C-Suite to engage in new ways resurfaced with the U.N. Global Compact, designed to help launch its new board engagement program.

It’s important to remember, however, that this is also just the beginning.

That fact was crystallized for me when two millennials invited into the U.N. Global Compact meeting ended up blowing a collective fuse. They threw the proverbial bucket of icy water.

For them, the global pressure cooker pictured during the board meeting is the future they must live in. They want less talk, more action. We can’t wait to read the sequel.