Leadership for Sustainability: It's About Boards

Multinational corporations that are leading the way in solving global challenges show us how essential it is for the board of directors to be engaged in the sustainability agenda; to partner effectively with NGOs, governments and other companies; and to engage thoughtfully with stakeholders. These companies are benefiting by growing their value, mitigating risks and reducing costs. Drivers for companies to address social, economic and environmental issues are investors, consumers and employees.

These are my conclusions based on robust research and experience described in A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems...Where Governments Cannot, published a year ago this month by Palgrave Macmillan. Fundamental to effective board governance for sustainability is a board comprised of people from diverse backgrounds, and a social responsibility committee. Dozens of case studies in my book include Unilever, Dow, HP, Nike, Kimberly-Clark, GSK and Intel, including their partnerships with companies, governments, universities and NGOs such as Acumen, The Nature Conservancy and PYXERA Global.

A recent and excellent study on collaboration, sustainability, and leadership conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review, the Boston Consulting Group, and the United Nations Global Compact further supports the conclusions and recommendations in my book. And to advance this important work, companies have the advantage of more and better resources -- through the UN Global Compact, BSR and Ceres, for example.

One area that is still not fully developed is the opportunity for business executives to grow as leaders through NGO/nonprofit board service. When carefully matched to boards where their interests and qualifications match, business people can add essential value, while gaining unique learning experiences. Through board service -- when effectively trained -- people from companies participate in a process with peers to develop a vision, build an organizational revenue model and help maximize the NGO's greater potential. In fact, nonprofit board service is the ultimate experience in ethics, accountability, leadership, group dynamics and crisis management and communications.

Through NGO/nonprofit board service, business people gain knowledge and understanding of vital issues, such as education, economic development, workforce development, climate change and the environment -- matters that are fundamental to corporate strategy. Board service is also a a highly effective form of stakeholder engagement as board members develop relationships and expertise in communities where the company has a presence.

Board service is the perfect opportunity for business people to improve communities and the world, while preparing themselves to be better leaders -- as executives and directors of public company boards. Highly purposeful NGO board engagement further stimulates companies to become more innovative, successful and profitable by finding solutions to global problems.