senior client partner
This Week in Leadership
Confusing Purpose-Driven with ‘Greenwashing’
Leaders need to embrace sustainability as a business strategy, not just develop ad campaigns about it, argues best-selling author Daniel Goleman.
It happens all the time: a new boss comes in with a different set of primary concerns than his or her predecessor. And just as often, everyone else in the office has to figure out how much they need to emulate the new boss.
What doesn’t happen all the time, of course, is that the new boss is the president of the United States. To be sure, the election results are being contested, with lawsuits and recounts potentially delaying a final tally for weeks. But as more organizations work under the assumption that Joe Biden will become the US president come January 20, 2021, their leaders will have an important issue to face: How much—and how quickly—should they follow the priorities of the new administration? As Kate Shattuck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and coleader of the firm’s Impact Investing practice, sees it, knee-jerk adoptions of a new boss’s approach will rarely succeed. “What customers and employees want to see is consistency,” she says.
Of course, some of these issues may morph into actual policies and regulations that companies will have to follow. For instance, Biden has said that he will increase investigations into violations of minimum wage laws and also make it easier for employees to unionize, says Tom McMullen, leader of Korn Ferry’s North America Total Rewards expertise group. Companies would have to adapt their business practices to any trade policy changes as well. Yet experts say most of Biden’s top priorities leave room for interpretation by both individual leaders and organizations. While a new administration most likely won’t mandate that companies hire more people of color, administration officials most certainly will talk about how private organizations need to create more opportunities, including leadership roles, for underrepresented groups.
In some respects, the private sector has already prioritized some of these issues because their own stakeholders have demanded it, Shattuck says. The influx of Wall Street money funds that prioritize environmental, social, and governance investing, along with the growth of the purpose movement, has had considerable influence on pushing companies to meld their business practices with actions that can help the environment or improve society as a whole.
Since the Great Recession, and over the past five years in particular, leaders at both public and private organizations have stepped up as their customers and employees have lost trust in traditional government institutions, Shattuck says. Many companies are already publicly explaining what they are doing, and will do, to reduce their carbon footprint and to give more opportunities to people of color. “That’s a huge sea change, and unprecedented,” Shattuck says. Indeed, that sea change is one reason why company CEOs and board directors shouldn’t give the impression that they are changing their company’s values and products just because there’s a new president with new priorities. Organizations have to answer to the priorities of their stakeholders first. “Frankly, if they pivot in three days, their customers and employees will see that as pandering,” Shattuck says.
However, experts say there is one area that outside leaders could emulate from the new administration. At least initially, Biden has talked about how some of today’s toughest issues are interrelated—the economy can’t be revived without resolving the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. That nuanced, interconnected approach to leadership is also essential as leaders tackle similar issues in their own organizations. “You can’t put each of these issues in its own container,” says Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. Indeed, with such difficult challenges, leaders will have to be comfortable with nuance and ambiguity. “We’ve been living with leaders who think of black-and-white issues and either/or,” Orr says.