We had the pleasure of hosting a virtual discussion with Meaghan Ramsey, a purpose-led business strategist and Partner in a global strategic advisory firm based in London.
Meaghan has extensive experience working with large and complex organisations across sectors from finance to FMCGs, healthcare to retail, oil and gas. She has advised business leaders from all regions of the world on issues from climate change to financial inclusion, human rights to access to healthcare, sanitation and education.
Meaghan kindly joined us from London to lead a very insightful discussion on corporate leadership. She spends her time working with companies to drive reputation and deepen stakeholder relationships through strategies that create societal value together with financial value, particularly when faced with critical issues and challenging operating environments. Her primary focus is on advising large corporations on how to both present as leaders and demonstrate the value of the business to society.
Meaghan says, large corporations often find themselves on the firing line in relation to societal issues, from inequality to the environment, technology and geopolitics, and they are increasingly expected to take a point of view on them.
Issues become critical for a business when they become critical for the breadth of that business’ stakeholders: from investors and financial stakeholders, to regulatory and political stakeholders, and indeed wider society. Interestingly, as Meaghan suggests, it is when these interests overlap that a “perfect storm” can develop with tricky, hard-to navigate dilemmas at its centre. When this happens, business leaders must find a way to balance the competing interests of their different stakeholders, to remain successful. How can you balance withdrawing from fossil fuels to progress your climate agenda whilst sustaining regional communities that rely on them? How can we create sustainable, reliable food crops to feed the growing population (which today requires pesticide use), without permanently damaging biodiversity (now recognised as a contributing factor to climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic)? For business and corporate affairs leaders, this balancing act is increasing becoming a ‘new normal’.
Covid-19 Presents an ‘Acid Test’ for Business Leaders
The Covid-19 pandemic has been described as an ‘acid test’ for corporate leadership. When the pandemic passes, we can expect people to look back and ask how business responded. So what does leadership look like in that moment?
Meaghan quotes novelist, Eric Walters in saying, “Crisis doesn’t change people, it reveals them.” And against a backdrop of debate about the role of capitalism in society, she believes the pandemic will put the emerging notion of “responsible” capitalism to the test, given its intersection with every major global issue. She uses the examples of climate change and inequality. While Covid-19 shutdowns are lowering greenhouse gas emissions, history indicates that we can expect a resurgence in emissions as we recover, which will offset any positive gains. At the same time, the pandemic is widening social and economic divisions, and those hit hardest economically are the ones form whom the virus is deadlier, a self-reinforcing cycle that experts warn could have consequences for years to come.
Meaghan suggests that those businesses that will emerge well out of the pandemic will take both a long term and short term view and focus their responses to drive change at the systems level.
Building Back Better
Moving to the next phase of the pandemic, businesses are now in what Meaghan describes as the “brace position”, following what has undoubtedly been the fastest and deepest economic shock in living memory.
Interestingly, when it comes to early indicators of market resilience, several studies have noted how ESG stocks are outperforming the broader market in the current crisis. According to HSBC, climate-focused stocks have outperformed others by 7.6%, while ESG shares have beaten others by about 7%.
For the majority of business and corporate affairs leaders, the daily focus is now on “recovering better”. As Meaghan suggests, as trust in other institutions is falling, the world is looking for businesses to step up and drive change across key issues on the list of global priorities.
Meaghan suggests the pandemic could even reveal hidden vulnerabilities within complex global supply chains and presents exporters with the opportunity to innovate and identify better alternatives. In fact, Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was quoted in the Financial Times saying “I do believe there’s going to be a review of supply chains at every company in the world.”
Businesses Cutting Through
Meaghan shares some key characteristics of corporate leadership that she believes will enable cut through around social change include:
- Take a very clear stance on the issues that matter most to your business and stakeholders.
- Focused on the issue in your engagements, not on your business or its achievements.
- Commit to a bold, long-term ambition, and laying out a roadmap to get there.
- Act through the core of your business, embedding purpose into your decision making.
- Demonstrate real progress and calling on others to join you.
“Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy.” - António Guterres, UN.
Meaghan joined Brunswick in 2016 from Unilever where she led the global social impact work of some of their largest brands, including Dove where she was responsible for strategy, mass-media campaigns, educational programming and advocacy. Her TED Talk and speech at the UN’s 59th Commission on the Status of Women helped highlight the importance of her work and she was nominated for the 2015 Women in Business: Australian Business Woman of the Year in the UK Award in recognition of her work on Corporate Purpose. Watch her incredible TED Talk here.