UN headquarters

We attended...The UN Global Compact Leaders Summit

Jo Appleby champions her role as a global citizen at the UN Headquarters and her friend’s wedding!

It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to be part of a meeting in the Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and for me, well, it might be  my only time…no I didn’t misbehave and get thrown out, that’s not the reason...but the UN doesn’t open it’s Assembly Hall doors to all people, all the time.

Impact was invited to join the annual United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit Meeting along with many other Global Leaders from a variety of sectors. The purpose of the meeting was to explore and better understand the role of business in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations opened the event and was joined by Lise Kingo, the UNGC Executive Director, they both put emphasis on the need to ‘put the goals into impact and action’ and that ‘we all needed to join the journey’. Lise aligned the goals to ‘the new North Star’, the one that we all must follow.

Others who shared the stage throughout the 1.5 day event included CEOs and UN officials, SDG pioneers, poets, activists and musicians…too many to mention here.

What I noticed is that the desire to do something, to address the enormous social and environmental issues that face us all, is becoming more widely understood, talked about and worked on, not just by activists, scientists and civil society but from ordinary people from all walks of life, sectors and generations.

It’s encouraging, relevant, desperately needed and hopefully not too late…

However, it doesn’t mean understanding what and how to address these issues is becoming easier to do, quite the opposite. According to Francesco Starace, the CEO of Enel, we need to ‘listen to others, but not the obvious ones’ we need ‘an open mind and heart and endless co-operation, if we are able to address the SDGs’ 2030 agenda’.

Innovation is the key say many, including Chang-Gyn Hwang, CEO from KT Corporation. They are using big data to solve social issues, like health and education. He talked about tackling social inclusion through the Giga Island Project and about being an engineer at heart, one that ‘wants to benefit people and solve human problems’ and he believes KT Corporation has only just began this journey…the potential he says is endless.

‘If you think you are too small to make a difference…think of a mosquito’- Bola Adesola, MD & CEO, Standard Chartered Bank, Nigeria

‘Are you laying bricks, building a wall or creating a temple…we need you all’

While those words weren’t written by the amazing spoken word poet Sarah Kay, she created a beautiful narrative around them and aligned them to the value that we all bring in addressing the SDGs. Sarah’s ten minute performance captivated an audience of more than 1000 people and inspired a standing ovation. AMAZING.

I was curious about some of the individuals I spoke with, the ones who were managing, articulating and creating change within their organisations. They weren’t CSR  (Corporate Social Responsibility) or sustainability experts. Instead their background was in talent management, as business strategists, or lawyers.

‘Clearly you need to really understand the business’ said one of them, ‘but actually, if we need experts we can bring them in’.

This was positive news, this shift from CSR department (which often lacks influence and resources) to people with a robust understanding of the business (and with a clear mandate, influence and support) this is movement in the right direction.

I fear if this stays in a CSR department or worse still, in a report it just isn’t happening.

Sprinkled in the audience were MBA students and Sustainability students, I spoke with a few of them asking one group ‘Who, in your opinion is leading the way in terms of business transformation?’. The answer, ‘Tesla’. Yes, that was the only one they came up with! One student tells me how he wants to use his knowledge and experience from studying to benefit people at the bottom of the pyramid in his home country of Brazil.

I also attended a busy workshop on ‘how to embed SDGs into business operations’. There was a sense that people are grappling with how to do this and want some answers but there isn’t a toolkit that makes this easy. It's messy, complex and requires long term thinking which isn’t in line with today’s volatile world, however, the UNGC have put together a series of smaller, more focused workshops to help businesses and there are several really useful documents available like the SDG Industry Matrix or the SDG Compass to help you if it’s your role to implement this stuff.

Still reflecting from the UNGC Meeting and a couple of days after the event, I attended the wedding of a very good friend. It was during dinner that I found myself in a conversation with two people, a TV producer and an accountant. We talked and debated (argued?) about the responsibility of business and of ourselves as global citizens. We had opposing views. Later I bumped into the TV producer and we talked briefly about the previous heated debate, it turns out that he and the accountant continued the conversation after I left (probably for the dance floor!) he thanked me for highlighting/arguing a different point of view to theirs and that it was really interesting.

At Impact we want to do the same on our programmes - the dialogue (definitely not the arguing) - to enable participants to think of themselves as global citizens and the role that they and their organisations play in addressing social and environmental challenges in an interconnected and fast changing world.

We will continue to use the SDGs as a framework to firstly, enable us to talk with our clients about the goals that matter for them and secondly, to help us to design meaningful Leadership programmes which deepens our participants understanding of their leadership.

Jo Appleby is Head of Community Partnerships at Impact UK.