A changing of the guard at the UN Global Compact

    Lise Kingo, executive director of the United Nations Global Compact and Georg Kell, founder and former executive director.

    Georg Kell was there at the start — he crafted the speech that planted the seed, took that idea and an initial $20,000 and led the development of what is today’s United Nations Global Compact. When he stepped down at the end of August, he left a labor of love and a 15-year legacy to new leader Lise Kingo.

    Kell, the founder and former executive director of the U.N. Global Compact, has a frenetic energy, which may be part of what helped him build the initiative over the years. His passion was evident in his speeches, and he was known for pulling colleagues into conversation about strategy or new plans as he walked through the halls.

    “I have a deep respect for entrepreneurs,” Kell told Devex in an interview before he left the UNGC. “I know what it means to build something and be obsessed with a product or idea.”  

    Kell built the Global Compact into the significant player that it is today — a history that Kingo will need to understand well. But Kingo has her own spin on how to help the UNGC reach its goals, wielding her solid private sector experience, a passion for sustainability and a marketing background. It’s a changing of the guard, and Kingo plans to nod to Kell’s legacy not only by growing members, but by bringing a modern edge.

    Kell was working for John Ruggie, who was then United Nations assistant secretary-general for strategic planning, when he was tasked with drafting remarks for then Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum. The remarks were met with such a positive response that he was asked to run with the idea and build it into an initiative. The Global Compact launched in 2000 with 47 members.

    He led the organization through several phases, from determining the principles to a period of accountability, governance and disclosure, to the current phase of growth and striving for scale.

    He also faced criticisms of his management and of the way local networks were run — but he weathered them, acquiring more than a few gray hairs in the process, he joked.

    As the U.N. Global Compact approached its 15th anniversary and Kell approached 25 years with the U.N., it seemed a fitting time to retire, he said. At the initiative’s anniversary event in June, Lise Kingo was named his successor.

    Kingo is no stranger to the Global Compact. She knew many of the staff through her time at Novo Nordisk, where she was most recently chief of staff and executive vice president. She assumed the post of the U.N. Global Compact executive director on Sept. 1.

    She spent the summer reading documents, familiarizing herself with issue platforms and previous research. She met with each group before her official start date and spent time with Kell, getting his thoughts and asking many questions.

    Kell worked to ease the transition, but also had his eyes on what was next. He told Devex he would likely take time off — maybe even do some gardening.

    But, and this is likely of little surprise to those who knew him, he already had his next step decided as he made his exit. Arabesque Partners, an Anglo-German asset management firm that focuses on sustainable investing, announced in August that they had appointed Kell vice chairman-designate.

    Kell knew how to work the U.N. system and ultimately succeeded to build a new kind of entity. Kingo’s path to the job started differently, at Novo Nordisk, which was one of the early U.N. Global Compact signatories. Kingo worked at the company for 26 years, starting in the promotions department where a chance assignment of fielding letters from critical nongovernmental organizations led her to working on environmental awareness and then sustainability at the company.

    The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or the “Earth Summit,” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 sparked a fascination and “ignited a lifelong interest in sustainable development,” Kingo said.

    There are many who are happy to see the executive director position filled by someone from the private sector, but for those concerned about her ability to work within the U.N. system, her belief that the “U.N. charter is a beautiful document” and her work with various U.N. agencies over the years may help.

    In her first month on the job, Kingo was thrust into action with events surrounding the U.N. SDG Summit and General Assembly, not least of which was the Private Sector Forum, which brought together the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Bono and many other business, NGO and U.N. leaders.

    The UNGC has some big targets, including a goals of 20,000 members by 2020 — enough, perhaps, to reach a tipping point in the way business is done. To achieve that goal and more than double current participation in the initiative, Kingo and the UNGC team will have to find ways to reach new audiences and spend less time talking to the already converted.

    It might not be an accident that the committee hiring the new executive director went with a candidate who has a background in marketing.

    “We have the huge task of helping translate the global goals to businesses throughout the world and to create a true movement to sustainable business,” Kingo said.

    And she’s already looking ahead at what that means for the organization.

    One key issue she will focus on is the financial sector, which, according to Kingo, has perhaps the greatest transformative potential of any sector, but is an agenda that still needs a lot of work. While the SDGs can help provide a lighthouse or marker to help guide long-term strategy and investments for companies, the financial sectors short-term thinking can limit progres.

    Kingo’s more than 15 years of experience working with mainstream financial investors and talking about the sustainability work and business model at Novo Nordisk might help her make the case at a broader scale.

    She said she has “witnessed a steady but slow increase of interest in this area” and that many analysts and investors see sustainability as important because it minimizes risk. What’s needed though is a next step in which sustainable companies help innovate a new system of doing business.

    But she will also be looking inward at the role the UNGC can play and where it should focus its resources.

    “We are basically a multinational headquartered in New York with affiliates throughout the world and really upgrading the entire organization to an efficient, modern organization that can disseminate the messages of: ‘First, please do responsible business and adhere to the 10 principles, then, dear businesses please have a look at the global goals and identify according to the [SDG] compass those that are relevant for you and use them to turn risks into opportunities as an inspiration for new innovation,’” Kingo said.

    There are a number of ways Kingo plans to achieve these goals.

    She wants to ensure that the UNGC can serve as a partnership hub and help companies trying to navigate the U.N., further develop issue platforms so they reflect all of the SDGs and provide an opportunity for businesses to connect and learn, continue to organize events that keep the attention on the private sector role and work to improve UNGC systems and its local networks.  

    The Global Compact local networks, and the system itself, are often criticized. While some local networks are active and effective, many others are underfunded or aren’t truly representative of all sectors. Kingo is aware of the criticisms and leveraging that network will be a key focus for her.

    “We will definitely work of course with the organizational development of the entire organization,” she said. “Of course we have to optimize our processes and our organization and our models to do that and deliver the best possible job we can.”

    Some of those organizational changes will take time, and the development community — perhaps Kell especially — will be watching to see how Kingo’s skills will lend themselves to achieving the compact’s goals.

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    About the author

    • Saldiner adva

      Adva Saldinger

      Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.