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Bridging the great divide between knowledge and action

27 January 2021 – Alice Spencer, Programme Director and Global Lead for The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, explores some of the dilemmas that senior business leaders will face in the year ahead and how CISL considers these in programme design.

CISL’s Education Team is accustomed to working in a rapidly changing world. Each year and with each programme we deliver we must remain clear and informed about where we collectively need to get to, recognise how global shifts and trends may create new barriers or dissolve existing ones,  and anticipate what this means for the daily lives of decision makers.

As global awareness of sustainability challenges has increased, our role is no longer about making the case for change, but about creating pathways to a more sustainable future. This year of turbulence has created an interesting challenge for our work: how to engage people during a time of crisis when survival is the primary instinct, while harnessing the same crisis to help them visualise and influence a sustainable future? At an intellectual level, we know that we can’t go back to normal… because normal was the problem. Yet at a human level we yearn for many aspects of the normality that we have lost.

For CISL’s flagship The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, a Global Steering Committee, comprised of key programme stakeholders including senior leaders from business, policy and academia, has been convened to share our collective insights into the changing landscape and the routes to effective action, with this quarterly blog series as an opportunity to share insights from the monthly conversations.

The ingredients of a global disaster and inevitability of shock


"We have much to learn from how the world responded to the system shock of a pandemic, a shock which - like climate change - was long anticipated but for which many did not adequately prepare. We must look at the adequacy of our approaches to risk, the ways we develop strategy and the factors that influence our decisions."

Lindsay Hooper, Executive Director, Education, CISL

As the acute shock to our lifestyles and livelihoods evolves into long-term or even permanent transformations, we are beginning to digest the chain reaction that led us to this point in time: living inharmoniously with nature – globalisation - pandemic – inequality - trust deficits - political instability - economic downturn. All feedback loops that reinforce one another, leading to a systems level shock which was predictable – perhaps even inevitable – but no less shocking or devastating as a result.

So why are inevitable system shocks always so… shocking? The bell has long since tolled regarding the degradation of our natural world, destabilising climate change, cavernous inequalities, the interaction between them and the devastating shocks we will see if we fail to respond. Each year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risk Report tells us that environmental challenges rank highest among the existential crisis humanity faces today. Each year, we continue to tune in to watch David Attenborough paint an increasingly vivid picture of our destruction of the natural world, culminating in his ‘Witness Statement’ for planet earth. Yet still we seem unable to act.

These complex global challenges are often deprioritised by business leaders and politicians alike as challenges ‘over there’, in another place, at another moment in time, for someone else to address. We continue to respond to triggers not risks, to focus on symptoms not causes, and while we may pride ourselves on crisis response, we struggle to marshal equivalent energy for planned long-term transitions. It seems a cruel fault of our human condition that we so often only react to near and present danger.

Examples do exist of businesses observing trends, understanding system dynamics and taking action to get into a stronger position to mitigate shock – for themselves and for the societies in which they operate. Within our seminars, we learn from these approaches, exploring the root causes of system shocks - not just the symptoms – and considering how we can leverage our crisis response to address underlying issues. 

The biggest risk: business as usual


"In short, the pandemic has acted as a wake-up call and provided an opportunity to do things differently. The real question is: Will we stay awake?” 

Dame Polly Courtice, Director CISL

Business has evolved over the last 30 years to sit neatly within a Friedman paradigm of shareholder primacy and infinite growth without considering the true cost of depleting our underpinning social and environmental resources. Arguably, this ‘growth at all costs’ approach has catalysed the growth of deadly viruses as a result of deforestation and the wildlife trade, at a time when our increasingly globalised and fragile world makes small-scale outbreaks of disease a catastrophic global problem.

In a world where our largest corporations control flows of money and influence societies at a scale larger than the GDP of some nations, we must ask: are our business leaders equipped to apply this significant power to make responsible decisions for the common good? In our programmes, we explore the purpose of business beyond, as Greta puts it, selling our futures, “so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money”.

CEO credibility is reported at all-time low according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer | Edelman , but the expectation is that, in absence of effective government direction, business will step in to solve our global challenges, with people (stakeholders) and not profit (shareholders) at the centre of their response. Generating profitable value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders, is a growing business discourse centred around stakeholder capitalism, as described in a WEF podcast with CISL Director Polly Courtice, outlining the move from balance sheets to value sheets.

With longstanding pressure from investors for business to be part of the solution, our programmes look at what it really means to go beyond articulating business purpose, to engraining this in the central business strategy and living this in daily operations. How can these fundamental shifts be embraced in ways that deliver real results, not just enhanced rankings and reputation? To effectively apply a purpose, our programmes must support business leaders to transform the ways in which they create value, embedding this in everything from corporate finance, investment, incentives including KPIs and a board level commitment.

The goldilocks approach to programme design


“Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”

Alvin Toffler

Taking these considerations into account in designing programmes at CISL, we are constantly challenged to frame a discussion that sets the tone ‘just right’. If you challenge delegates too much or ignore the reality of their context you risk alienating them or inadvertently create a paralysis to act in the face of daunting global challenges. Don’t push hard enough and you underplay the true urgency of the challenges we face, allowing priority lists to be re-drawn to favour the neat and simple over the complex and hard, resulting in the most significant issues remaining in blind spots, just off the radar.

The learning journey does not commence and conclude in the handful of days we have a captive audience. To ensure delegates have every chance at success, we carefully select the right people to be in the room to ensure they have a clear goal in mind and route to achieving this. We harness momentum gathered during the programme and ask them to make commitments, holding themselves to account and reducing the risk of regression to business as usual, however difficult. We acknowledge the difficulties; not every organisation is primed to make changes, with critical stakeholders engaged, an enabling governance structure, an engrained and enacted purpose and an engaged Board. We don’t pretend there are simple solutions to complex problems. These are the critical leadership challenges of our time.

There is always some distance between knowledge of our global trends and a vision of what needs to be done to safeguard our futures, but that distance decreases each year; even if it is two steps forward and one step back. The learning journeys we curate at CISL will continue to meet delegates where they are, emboldening them to go further, faster.

Ultimately our goal is positive impact, but the route is always different. A delegate really can’t step into the same CISL programme twice, for it’s not the same programme and they are not the same person.

The Prince of Wales's Business & Sustainability Programme Global Steering Committee members are:

Alice Spencer (Chair), Anton Cartwright, Will Day, Elspeth Donovan, Jane Farago, Lindsay Hooper, Philippe Joubert, Tony Juniper, Alan Knight, Ylva Lindberg, Anna Lungley and Bob Scholes.

This blog is a summary and interpretation of the Committee discussion and not necessarily represent the views of any one member of the Committee.

Our series of The Prince of Wales's Business & Sustainability Programme (BSP) seminars, held around the world, have become a global benchmark for sustainability leadership education. With over 3,200 alumni from more than 1,500 organisations, we celebrate 26 years of the programme this year.

The programme is designed to give senior executives the knowledge and techniques to address key sustainability challenges in a practical way.

Participants are encouraged to review their current business models and set a vision for what success looks like in the future, leaving the course with the inspiration, understanding and confidence to define and respond to pressing social, economic and environmental priorities.

Click here for further information about the BSP in 2021 and to apply.

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About the author

Alice Spencer

Alice joined CISL in 2017 and is the global lead for CISL’s flagship HRH Prince of Wales’s Programme, delivered annually in Cambridge, Melbourne, Cape Town, Singapore (2021) and virtually. She is also responsible for developing and delivering customised executive education programmes for senior leaders and has significant ongoing programmes within the banking, manufacturing and retail sectors. Alice has experience of working with boards and oversees CISL’s programme for Non-Executive Directors in Australia, which equips delegates to engage with strategic business decisions to align sustainability and profitability.

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Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.