7 best practices to help corporate leaders become change agents

To learn more about ways private sector companies can better contribute to achieving the SDGs, Devex, working with Verizon, asked more than 850 development professionals for their recommendations. Photo by: Devex

The Sustainable Development Goals crystalized the notion that the world’s biggest challenges cannot be achieved unless all sectors and all countries played their part, including a prominent role for the private sector. Corporate leaders are critical in leading the private sector on sustainability. As the primary framework to connect business strategies and operations with development priorities, the private sector can leverage the SDGs to capitalize on new business opportunities, create jobs, and make positive and demonstrable social and environmental contributions around the world.  

Some companies have already made significant contributions. In 2019, the Business Roundtable — an organization comprised of CEOs from large U.S. corporations — announced that 181 CEOs would be opting to lead their companies differently, with the benefits of customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders, top of mind.

“If we want to embed sustainability into our business and have a positive social impact, there needs to be a clear recognition that we can't do these things on our own, that we need to work with partners in the development community.”

— Jonathan Gill, global sustainability director for strategy and corporate engagement, Unilever

Despite such pledges, the contributions of businesses to the SDGs are not on track, according to a United Nations Global Compact and Accenture study. Other research suggests that while the private sector may be expanding philanthropic giving or corporate social responsibility programs, few are actually shifting their business models to support the SDGs. Some critics even assert that much of the corporate engagement with the SDGs is superficial and companies are not actually changing their priorities or behavior to advance the agenda.

So what can and should corporate leaders be doing to really invest in the goals and drive change forward? Devex, in partnership with Verizon, asked over 850 experienced development professionals in a new report: “Leading the Charge on the SDGs: Best Practices for CEOs & Corporate Leaders.” Here are the seven best practices that were uncovered as those most likely to help corporate leaders have a meaningful impact on the SDGs.

1. Commit personally

According to the interviewees, superficial commitment and a lack of genuine engagement with development issues are the biggest stumbling blocks to sustainability at the corporate level. To remedy this, they recommend CEOs commit on a personal level to drive change and act as an example to others in the company. In fact, 94% of online survey respondents believe that CEOs and other C-Suite executives are critical in driving discussions around the SDG agenda.

Leading the Charge on the SDGs: Best Practices for CEOs & Corporate Leaders

What’s inside:

► How can corporate leaders best engage with the SDGs?

► What can and should CEOs and other corporate leaders do to drive the SDG agenda within and beyond their companies?

► How can CEOs and the private sector best engage in SDG discussions and partnerships?

► How are effective partnerships made between corporate leaders and their development community counterparts?

“I think we are seeing a strategic moment of opportunity: Here we are in a very disruptive moment and I think it is probably sometimes down to individual CEOs in the private sector who have both the vision, the clarity of thinking, and the personal commitment to be part of the change rather than abdicating responsibility,” said Achim Steiner, administrator at the U.N. Development Programme.

On a practical level, this could involve visiting development projects overseas to help form an invested connection with the work being done, leading global conversations on private sector engagement with the SDGs, and participating in global events to exchange knowledge and best practices.

2. Build knowledge and development expertise

According to Devex interviewees, most C-suite executives struggle to understand development terminology and have an outdated understanding of how it works. 88% of online survey respondents believe that CEOs need to directly engage with the development community and this can’t be done if there is a lack of understanding.

“It’s rare to have a CEO that’s really well-versed with the SDG agenda,” said Steve Kenzie, executive director, at U.N. Global Compact Network U.K. “Because the SDGs are not in the public mainstream dialogue, it’s more difficult to get them in front of a CEO, to get their attention and the necessary buy-in to this bigger idea about the company being sustainable in every way, and not just net zero.”

Hiring an in-house sustainability head was one suggestion to help corporate leaders make the right sustainability decisions and mainstream sustainability activities across the company.

3. Narrow your focus

Tied to a lack of understanding of how development works is the idea that many corporate leaders struggle to wrap their heads around the 17 goals and 169 targets that make up the SDGs. They are therefore unable to focus their resources and activities on specific targets. This can reduce the level of impact their efforts may have. 42% of survey respondents say that corporate leaders should identify and prioritize the SDGs that are most aligned with the company’s strategy and operations.

“In our case, out of 17 SDGs, we decided to focus on five of them. This is not to say that we are not tackling the others, but priority setting is something that is quite important if you want to achieve real impact,” said Mauricio Adade, president of Latin America and global malnutrition partnerships at Royal DSM.

Focusing on one SDG or SDG target doesn’t mean that companies should ignore their business needs, however. In fact, Devex interviewees suggest that corporate leaders approach the SDGs with a clear focus on business so that activities simultaneously address both development and business goals.

4. Build responsibility into your strategy and core business

Taking it a step further, 93% of development professionals believe that the SDGs should be integrated into companies’ corporate strategies and purpose. One way to do this is to create a shared value, which focuses on solving social problems profitably.

Another way is to make business practices — including operations and supply chains — more sustainable. This could mean implementing policies such as equal pay, a commitment to reduce travel, or the development of a recycling plan. Studies show that investors, consumers, and employees are increasingly expecting companies to build responsibility into their strategies and core businesses.

“You have to be credible throughout your organization. Within your organization’s canteen, start using sustainable and local products and stop using plastic, or even meat. Go through the organization’s travel behavior, tender procedures, energy and water use, printing practices, etc.,” said Simone Filippini, president at the Leadership4SDGs Foundation.

5. Engage your employees

It can be difficult to change corporate mentality though, due to the sheer size and complexity of companies. As a result, initiatives are difficult to spread beyond the immediate circle of influence. That’s why respondents believe that creating a company culture of responsibility for the SDGs is the second most important role of corporate leaders, after aligning the company’s core business strategy with sustainability.

To help with this, they recommend convening different departments to set the company’s sustainability goals, conducting seminars where employees can learn about the SDGs, implementing employee volunteer programs, and offering incentives for reducing carbon footprint.

6. Build partnerships

While all these suggestions are positive, respondents warn against companies transforming into full-scale development organizations. Instead, partnerships where expertise of all parties — whether from the public or private sector — is leveraged is key. Over 55% of respondents said they had partnered with a corporation on issues affecting the SDGs. But partnering with the right people is crucial, respondents cautioned.

Devex interviewees recommend partnering with organizations that have local expertise, complement the corporation’s capabilities, and are geared toward guiding companies to become part of the sustainability discussions.

“If we want to embed sustainability into our business and have a positive social impact, there needs to be a clear recognition that we can't do these things on our own, that we need to work with partners in the development community,” said Jonathan Gill, global sustainability director, strategy and corporate engagement, at Unilever. “And we need that kind of upfront high level recognition that partnerships are critical.”

7. Measure and communicate impact

Finally, all of these actions must be tracked so that progress and impact can be monitored. According to half of respondents, it is essential to create accountability through measurable performance metrics based on SDG indicators. Devex interviewees say CEOs have a responsibility to communicate sustainability priorities down the operating line so that specific teams can break down targets into measurable KPIs. This creates a roadmap for compliance that spans across departments.

“Investors and their boards need to be willing to change certain metrics. Only when you turn sustainability targets that the company has linked to the SDGs into metrics within the business divisions and incentives linked to them, will the transformation start,” said Stefan Germann, CEO at Fondation Botnar.

Devex interviewees stress that corporate leaders should go on to communicate any success stories in order to raise awareness around what works and in the hope of inspiring others to follow suit.

Read the full report for more practical tips and case studies on how corporate leaders can help to create change in the development space.

About the author

  • Devex Editor

    Thanks for reading and for your interest in Devex. Sponsored content is produced in collaboration between Devex’s partnerships editorial team and our partners to promote a partner’s work or perspective on a particular issue. It gives actors across the global development sector — including nongovernmental organizations, private sector stakeholders, aid agencies and government institutions — the opportunity to go beyond traditional advertising and tell their stories in an impactful way. If you'd like to learn more about how you can shine a spotlight on a particular issue with Devex, please email advertising@devex.com. We look forward to hearing from you.