• The social, economic and environmental challenges of the 2020s require new approaches to leadership and responsibility.
  • Organizations that display Responsible Leadership are more likely to outperform their peers, boosting financial performance.
  • Interviews with Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers indicate a common thread – a high commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

The compounding economic, health, and social crises of the past year have exposed and further exacerbated inequalities in society. Activating Responsible Leadership is crucial to realizing equity and creating shared success for all stakeholders.

This is both a human and business imperative – according to Accenture’s 2020 COVID-19 research, 67% say that the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the need for greater business responsibility to improve societal and environmental outcomes. Even more striking is that it’s also personal: roughly one in two workers agree that the ethical, sustainable, and moral values that a company holds will become more important to them after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

Workers and consumers alike are demanding that organizations create value while leading with values.

What does this look like in practice?

Our research on Seeking New Leadership shows that organizations that display Responsible Leadership are more likely to outperform their peers, boosting financial performance, trust and sustainability, and continuous innovation. Five fundamental elements define what it means to lead responsibly.

The Five Elements Model: Responsible Leadership for a sustainable and equitable world
Image: Accenture

The past year has been a masterclass in applying these elements to some of the most complex challenges that society faces today. We’ve studied the habits and behaviours that activate Responsible Leadership and encode these values throughout organizations.

Recent interviews with the Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers communities at the World Economic Forum indicate a common thread – a high commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, ensuring that actions meet the needs of the many, rather than just the few.

Here is a sample of what we learned.

  • Stakeholder Inclusion: Consider your broader stakeholder set and ensure they are included in your conversations and feel valued.

When Rhea Singhal founded Ecoware Solutions Ltd for sustainable packaging, the labour force of her first manufacturing plant was 100% men. Introducing new working practices enabled a more inclusive culture: “It meant people could flex working hours around school hours and holidays. Equal pay is also a given – in some cases women earn more than men, taking less time off and being more regular with their work, with higher output.”

However, cultural shifts were required too: “We challenged middle managers who felt that women would have issues with their children, be unable to work reliable night shifts, or be uncomfortable in certain jobs. Having senior women and proactive measures really changed that culture.”

  • Emotion & Intuition: Put yourself in the shoes of others to understand what they’re going through – and use this to inform your decisions.

“This situation accelerated digital transformation, but we must not forget that it didn’t necessarily accelerate human transformation”. This was a key reflection of Juan José Pocaterra, CEO of Vikua, which develops infrastructure for smart cities and urban development in Latin America.

For Juan José, taking a holistic view of his people is critical to easing this enforced human transformation: “With this new situation, the family of your collaborator is now part of their working environment constantly and is also something to consider.”

Interestingly, his team have been more productive remotely, but taking a more empathetic view challenged whether this was truly positive: “If you take an analytical view, it’s great that productivity is up, but from an emotional level, individuals are down. And that’s not the type of the organization that we want to build.”

Being vulnerable and taking time for human conversations helps us see the human behind the numbers, he concludes.

  • Mission & Purpose: Reflect the diversity of your stakeholders to enable you to stay true to your core purpose.

Bongiwe Beja is CEO of Startup Services at SMTAX, a financial services organization for small to medium-sized businesses in South Africa. It is crucial that her team sees how their work ties to the bigger picture with broader impact: “Someone may only be applying for a VAT registration, but that VAT registration may be what they need to secure funding for their business, which is what is feeding their family. If we do a shoddy job, it’s not just a VAT number – we’re affecting that family.”

Client centricity is crucial to this, starting with her workforce: “We proactively employed young people and women – we have a lot of homes led by young, single parents and they are the primary users of our tax services. It’s always important that our team mimic our customer demographics to ensure we are meeting their needs.”

  • Technology & Innovation: Activate inclusive innovation through a virtuous cycle, where one enables the other.

“Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do – just get out and do it.” This was the attitude that David Chubak, CEO of US Retail Banking, feels served Citi well: “We saw and heard it getting tough for people, and proactively made the changes across our businesses to ensure that we were there for people, from waiving fees to simplifying procedures, getting ready for any worst-case scenario.”

But this wasn’t just about reacting to what was in front of them: “I like to say it's bringing humility and a heck of a lot of hustle; to be adaptive and ensure leadership is not set in stone. We’re not only adapting to the current needs of your client or your stakeholders as they are, but also ensuring that you're being as nimble and innovative as you can to react to changes.”

  • Intellect & Insight: Learn continuously by listening to multiple perspectives and co-creating better solutions.

As co-founder of a fast-growing technology company, Cristina Fonseca, CEO at Cleverly.ai and venture partner at Indico Capital Partners, found that one of her biggest learnings was being comfortable with uncertainty: “We cannot be afraid of making decisions because we have limited information. As a leader, every six months you need to be ready to be in a different place, decide with limited information, but be open to keep going and evolve.”

The key is continuously listening to what others are saying, combined with developing organizational memory: “In many organizations, people are detached from reality. Our insights come from understanding our users’ perspectives… We also built a knowledge-management team, making sure reliable and accurate information is available to everyone.”

Every voice has the power to change the world and we are grateful for these young leaders’ insights into how to create a more just and sustainable future. They have important things to say and, as we move into 2021, it benefits us all to listen.