Business News

Leadership in the era of sustainability – What does it take to drive change? Tomás Sercovich, CEO, Business in the Community Ireland

By Business & Finance
28 November 2023
Pictured: Tomás Sercovich, CEO, Business in the Community Ireland.

Tomás Sercovich is CEO of Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI), an organisation comprised of over 100 of Ireland’s leading businesses. BITCI helps organisations measure, manage and report on their corporate responsibility and sustainability. Here, he explores the notion of leadership in an era of sustainability and looks at what it takes to drive lasting change. 

We are living in a world in a constant state of poly-crisis. From wars in Ukraine and Gaza to a climate crisis that does not cease to demonstrate its impact through fires, floods and droughts, displacing millions, killing tens of thousands and seriously damaging livelihoods. 

Serious misinformation, biased AI and algorithms, extreme movements against immigrants and a polarised society, all are alarming symptoms of a democracy proving challenging and a void of leadership in our institutions. In Ireland, the impacts of recent storms are still being felt against a backdrop of an ongoing housing crisis, problems with our planning and our health systems along with a cost-of-living crisis.

What does this mean for business? 

Societal expectations on business are on the rise. Research from the Edelman Trust barometer 2023 show the increasing expectations gap between what business does and what society expects when it comes to addressing climate change, economic inequality, workforce reskilling or providing trustworthy information. While business remains a trusted institution and is recognised as very influential in driving change, it becomes imperative to “walk the talk” and develop a consistent and authentic approach to business development and sustainability.  

Earlier this month, Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI) held its annual CEO Forum in Dublin. Over 100 business leaders were in attendance from the most dynamic sectors and companies to discuss the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) dimensions of sustainability and the role of leadership in making change happen. 

BITCI is a movement for sustainable change in business and is often described as a network for different conversations. The 2023 CEO Forum featured a compelling and critical conversation on greening finance, on leading change and on assessing impact and real change. It tapped into the optimism of CEOs, their ambitions and responsibilities to embed ESG into their business models and their uncertainties about how to use the business voice to advance societal agendas.

Interestingly, a recent KPMG survey concluded that 2/3 of global CEOs are confident that they have embedded ESG into their businesses as a means to create value, but, at the same time, they feel their current ESG progress isn’t strong enough to withstand potential stakeholder scrutiny.  So BITCI’s network is there to provide the space for generating connections, sharing challenges and understanding possible solutions.

Leadership is a privilege not an entitlement 

Much of the conversation focused on the role of leadership and the role of the CEO in driving change. CEOs are optimistic about the opportunities, whether it is in green finance or in technology facilitating better management of supply chains or emissions reductions. This sense of opportunity needs to be coupled with a strong ambition on ESG and sustainability that reflects the demands of investors, customers and employees. 

I believe faced with raising societal expectations, businesses need to reflect on their purpose and business model and ensure it is aligned with the needs of our society and our economy in a holistic way. Business needs to understand how they build trust and engagement with various stakeholder groups and how to demonstrate authenticity in their communications. 

Equally, there is a need to focus on transparency as a means to create trust and disclosure is critical to build a narrative that can engage and explain the journey of transformation that businesses are leading. 

The ambition for Ireland on ESG and becoming a global green leader was highlighted and endorsed. Examples were discussed of how Ireland punches above its weight when it comes to successful businesses and leadership internationally. There was a strong sense of the unique place Ireland has to deepen its expertise and influence on ESG. The combination of our young talented educated workforce, multinationals in dynamic sectors and cutting edge Irish indigenous business is ideal to make Ireland synonymous with excellence in ESG. 

It was heartening to hear the personal role of the CEO in driving change. Being a CEO brings a sense of responsibility which shouldn’t be confused with a special status or entitlement. There is a real need for visible leaders that use their voice to influence change. It is important to accept that we don’t always have the answers and it is important to align with others, not just those who think the same as us to foster common solutions. ESG will be decisive for the success of a business and is an indicator of the legacy of the current CEO. 

Bring people with you on the journey 

Consumers, customers, employees and suppliers are central to the future viability of a business. There was a clear understanding that people are critical for the process of change. 

On customers and consumers, the voices in the Forum agreed that people want to live sustainably and want business to play a role in facilitating this lifestyle change. Equally, there is a need to educate, engage and bring people on the journey. Sustainability cannot become a luxury industry or a niche lifestyle. It needs to permeate all sectors and all product and service categories. At times of inflation and cost of living pressures, it becomes even more important to ensure that affordability is not at odds with sustainability. 

What needs to be done – Our call to action 

BITCI’s Forum closed with a clear rallying call to action from business leaders, calling on businesses to be brave, to embed sustainability across operations and not to leave anyone behind in its actions and vision. 

There was a particular call to coalesce as businesses, through “communities of courage”, aligned on a principle of experimentation and discovery of solutions to solve society’s problems, with a particular callout to large companies to support smaller companies across their operations and supply chains. Collective action, such as the initiatives led by BITCI – the Low Carbon and the Inclusive Workplace pledges, are geared to building these communities of courage to drive change. 

There was a strong call to government to share the ambition and provide the building blocks and support that will enable change. 

ESG has been defined as the biggest change management process in our lifetimes. This is a call for true leadership, for collective action and for business to lead on this agenda. The time is now.