Why business leaders should take an interest in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals by Clive Wilson

In September 2015, world leaders met at the United Nations in New York to make the most significant commitment in the history of humanity.

They formally adopted seventeen new sustainable development goals (SDGs) with stretching targets to tackle critical needs ranging from poverty, through climate change to world peace.  The goals are depicted above and can be further explored here.

Implications for business

Unlike the preceding Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) which focused primarily on the developing world, the SDGs are global goals which will play out in every country and affect every person on the planet.  And whilst most businesses and other organisations are already contributing to the delivery of one or more of the goals, many are unaware of the impact they are having.  This is certainly not the case at pharma giant Pfizer who have pinned their contribution to world health firmly to the SDG agenda as shown in the street-front windows of their world headquarters in New York, a stone’s throw away from UN headquarters.  And a minority of CEOs such as Unilever’s Paul Polman are building powerful reputations for themselves and their companies through their highly-visible commitment to the goals as described in this article from BusinessGreen.

Obvious opportunities

There are clear business benefits that arise from being part of the global agenda.  Positive PR is perhaps the most “in your face” example.  Customers like to see organisations playing their part in global priorities – and so do shareholders for that matter.  I’m pretty certain too that employees at such organisations take pride and become inspired by the thought that they’re making a positive contribution in the work they do.  Rather like the story of the guy who was sweeping up during an unannounced visit by John F. Kennedy to the Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the mid 1960’s – he famously told the president he was “helping to put a man on the moon”.

Strength of purpose

In my book “Designing the Purposeful Organization”, I stress the importance of organisations having an inspiring purpose that appeals to all stakeholders.  I also advocate the alignment of purpose within the organisations so that teams (for example) know how their purpose supports that of the business.  This alignment of purpose extends beyond the business as well.  If an organisation’s purpose is not aligned to the wider global agenda, it will simply become irrelevant and fail.  So aligning to a known agenda such as the SDGs supports business sustainability.

Leadership and team development

In an earlier Insights article, I spoke about the power of immersion programmes in leadership development.  I  emphasised that when leaders are engaged in programmes, where the purpose is clearly bigger than they are and where they have to work with people who are culturally different than they are, the scope to evolve their leadership mind-set is profound.  The SDGs provide such a sense of purpose and are ideal topics for an immersion programme.  Last year my colleagues and I had the privilege of designing a programme for a global pharma business (not Pfizer) to send their leadership cohorts to Uganda to help tackle cervical cancer (Goal 4).  We also worked with a globally recognized tech company to take their leaders to South America to stimulate economic growth (Goal 8) through the application of their technology.

Getting staff involved

I have now run several workshops and engaged with thousands of people from schools, universities and business on the SDGs.  In every case, people have found the goals to be inspiring and many commit to do amazing things.  Imagine the power of getting an entire workforce involved in the SDGs.  They would be sure to deliver many benefits for the company and for the world.

Are you ready for this?

An important consideration before leaping to join the global agenda is whether your organisation is culturally ready for such a leap.  Some organisations are frankly too busy dealing with many day to day challenges to be able to engage with the bigger picture.  The last thing their employees need is yet another bright idea to wear them down further!  For some organisations, they would be far better attending to their culture first.

Here at Primeast, we recently checked to make sure we were in good health by surveying our staff, our associates and our customers.  As a reader of Insights, you may well have been involved – if so then “thank you”!  We used the same Barrett Values Centre method that we deploy for many of our clients.  If you’re unfamiliar with this powerful method, you can take a free personal values  assessment here.  Take a look at how one of our clients used the values survey as a basis for understanding and working with cultural differences here.  Please call one of our team if you’d like to discuss your report or find out the benefits of surveying a whole company.

    • Clive Wilson is a Director of Primeast and author of “Designing the Purposeful Organization” published by Kogan Page.  Clive is currently writing ‘Designing the Purposeful World – the SDGs as a blueprint for humanity’ and is available for workshops and keynotes on the SDGs.
    • For resources visit the DPO pages.