Weekly Highlights April 21, 2015

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 10:15am

Corporate CEOs Acknowledged to be the Face of the Brand -- What Face Do Sustainability Leadership Companies Present?

Corporate CEOs are considered by many to be the face and cultural symbol of the public company -- whether they choose to be, or not. CEOs have become the Chief Reputation Officers.  Part of the credit can go to Jack Welch when he was the young, dynamic, fast-charging head of giant General Electric Company.  Years after he stepped down Mr. Welch is still giving CEOs advice, though his advice rarely touches on sustainability topics (to the contrary, Jack Welch dismissed the threat of global warming).

And credit also goes to Lee Iacocca four decades ago when he revived the fortunes of Chrysler Corporation, the laggard of America’s then Big Three auto makers.  His autobiography and other “leadership” books he authored helped to position both the veteran carmaker himself and his “rescued company.”  Mr. Iacocca helped to position CEOs are “rescuers” of companies in trouble and elevated the prominence of the office.

So today – who is the face of a large public company that is an acknowledged leader and pacesetter in sustainability, responsibility, ethics, contributions to the common good…the serious concerns of shareholders and stakeholders…and more?  Take a look at Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever – as The Guardian newspaper comments: “…he is everywhere.”  What does that mean?

As Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (Secretary-General of the activist group Civicus) describes it in a commentary:  “…he’s been criticizing fellow business leaders for putting profit ahead of fighting poverty and climate change, blogging on the urgent need to create a low-carbon economy, championing market-based approaches to ending poverty and calling for gender parity in development.” Is this the model for the 21st Century CEO?

This might be considered to be “so-un-CEO-like” if you look skeptically at Polman’s MNE peer group in general. Yes, there are global company CEOs who address important societal issues in a courageous and forward-thinking way.  But when we consider the immense size, reach and influence of Unilever, we could consider the actions and comments of CEO Polman to be the pacesetter for important stakeholders:  his company’s peers; his workforce; investors; the public sector; NGOs…

In the commentary we see other companies in the spotlight for beneficial social program actions:  Santander, IBM, Telefonica, Nike, Mastercard, World Bank (who the author feels all have educational initiatives worthy of positive recognition).  And the head of Civicus calls out companies that are seen as laggards – Google, Amazon, Starbucks (because of their “tax evasion” policies which work against the common good).

Key takeaways:  Unilever and CEO Paul Polman are showing the way; some other global companies are addressing some societal issues in a positive way; others are hurting society with policies such as evading taxes; there is a new spirit of dialogue and partnership between companies and NGOs; true corporate engagement involves risk; at the same time, NGOs have to be careful to protect their own methods and motives.

We invite you to read the Top Story in this week’s newsletter.  Think it through:  What do you think of Paul Polman’s outspoken approach…positions on issues…should some of his CEO peers take the risk and follow suit on these and other business-society issues?  Is he on target with the issues of most concern – the material issues – to his important stakeholders?  Is he too much of a risk taker?

This is just a sample of some of the articles from this weeks SustainabilityHQ Highlights.  You can view the full Highlights by using the following links. Sustainability | ESG, Highlights for the Week of April 21, 2015

Keywords: Media & Communications | Business & Trade | Environment & Climate Change | Governance & Accountability Institute (GAI) | esg | governance | sovereign wealth funds (SWF) | sustainability