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Business Leaders Are Under Unprecedented Pressure – But Have Unprecedented Opportunities

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The huge pressure on Unilever CEO Alan Jope in the past couple of months characterises the unprecedented challenges today’s business leaders face.

On the one hand, Jope is trying to drive Unilever’s sustainability credentials as a fundamental part of its business. On the other hand, he has faced anger from disgruntled shareholders who have suggested (wrongly, in my opinion) that returns to society are in conflict with returns to the business. All this, while navigating the day-to-day running of a company which employs 150,000 people.

BP is another case in point. It’s in the old business of oil, which is still doing incredibly well. But because its fossil fuel arm has driven its highest profits in eight years, it is now facing calls for a windfall tax. This pressure highlights a looming reality: when does CEO Bernard Looney go even harder into renewables?

Leaders also face extraordinary challenges surrounding the geopolitics of doing business – the ongoing Russia/Ukraine crisis and shifts in many countries’ relationships with China being a case in point – as well as delivering worthy diversity and inclusion agendas. These issues apply to leaders of all businesses, from SMEs to large corporations. And they are unavoidable.

It’s no longer possible for businesses to ignore these and operate under 20th century values and models, in which simple profits qualify as success. Older companies need to transform. New businesses need to be innovative.

It’s simple: leaders who fail to recognise and adapt to this new reality will fail. My sense is that over the next 10 to 20 years, many household name companies will cease to exist – or become shadows of their former selves like the camera company Kodak.
But while there are unprecedented challenges, there are also unprecedented opportunities. The whole world is changing. The same way we went through an industrial revolution, for example, we are now going through an environmental revolution. That creates business opportunities, whether you are an entrepreneur or corporate CEO.

Plastic Bank CEO David Katz, who I recently interviewed for my Leadership 2050 podcast series, is a case in point here.
Do you remember, a few years ago, that heartbreaking Blue Planet episode in which a whale tried to eat a plastic bucket?
Most people get caught up in the angst of the problem: “Oh god, that could be my bucket, my empty crisp packet, my empty water bottle.” But little else gets done beyond that, compared to the extent of the problem. What Katz has done with Plastic Bank is transformative. He actually saw plastic waste in the ocean as an opportunity to create a business. To explain, Plastic Bank sets up recycling points in coastal communities around the world, focusing on those with high rates of ocean pollution and poverty.
People in those communities can collect plastic waste from beaches and exchange it at Plastic Bank branches – which are also managed by local people – for bonuses that help provide family necessities such as groceries, water, digital connectivity and school tuition. Meanwhile, the plastic is recycled and processed into new raw materials which the company labels “social plastic”. This is then sold to manufacturers – companies ranging from Hugo Boss to Henkel have been clients – which can produce more environmentally, and socially ethical, products.

Katz is unlike very few other business people I’ve spoken to. The lesson we can all learn from him is to see the potential in modern-day problems to be re-framed as modern-day opportunities.
There are lots of people who write about ocean plastic waste, but he’s done something about it and created a profitable business out of it – while at the same time benefiting wider society by contributing to a more sustainable environment and economy.

When I take a story, when I take one set of meanings on things, when I believe things are a way, it’s finite. It’s just a finite way of thinking. And if I take a finite way of giving, I give up the infinite. So, when I believe something to be this way or that way, I give up all of the gift, all of the potentiality… It’s so much more available when I just look at it as: ‘Oh, that’s what it is.’ And I think that that’s really kind of been the Plastic Bank.” David Katz, CEO, Plastic Bank

So, there’s no doubt the multiple challenges that leaders face today are immense. But with the right vision, they can see these problems, from climate change to plastic waste, as an opportunity. And that creates unprecedented scope for growth.

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