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Building Leaders for Long-Term Business Performance

“Many businesses are recognising the need to respond to and, where possible, shape the changing context in which they operate. Yet at the same time they are not systematically equipping their people do so” - Dame Polly Courtice, Director of CISL

Building Leaders for Long-Term Business Performance is an ambitious new inquiry developed by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) in partnership with the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS). It aims to deepen our understanding of how multinational companies are defining and developing their leadership and talent pipelines in order to thrive in an increasingly complex business environment, while simultaneously contributing to long-term social, environmental and economic goals.

Consensus is building around the urgent need to rethink and reformulate current leadership paradigms, given deep anxieties around climate change, natural resource systems, political upheaval and social stability. In January 2017, the World Economic Forum’s Business and Sustainable Development Commission issued its flagship report, mapping out the economic incentives and imperatives for business transformation in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Forum also saw the launch of a new Compact for Responsive and Responsible Leadership, calling for CEOs, Boards of Directors, leading investors and asset managers to create a corporate governance framework with a focus on the long-term sustainability of corporations and on societal ambitions beyond profit maximization.

The implications of these sustainability changes are profound, posing significant questions to the nature of future business growth. Tackling these issues can build trust with consumers, mitigate strategic risk, differentiate brand and inform new services and opportunities The UN SDGs provides a clear framework and offers the clearest indication of future markets and societal expectations, while legislative and technological advances are challenging the status quo and opening new opportunities. The circular economy, for instance, can offer huge scope for business innovation and new models of value creation. (Research estimates that the waste dimension alone in a global circular economy represents a US$ 4.5 trillion market opportunity to 2030

At Unilever, we recognise that we need new profiles from our talent pipeline to lead sustainable business transformation in a rapidly changing global context. However, we have significant challenges in finding, recruiting and developing the people that we seek” - Doug Baillie, Ex CHRO, Unilever & Advisory Board Chair, ABIS

Many forward-thinking companies are exploring ways to design new business models and better align organisational strategy with sustainable outcomes. Yet, for all these efforts, it appears that few have fully embedded the sustainable business agenda into leadership and people development functions. This takes on extra importance when millennial attitudes are considered (vis-à-vis employers’ commitment to sustainability, and the alignment of social purpose with career choices).

Such issues are not trivial. As businesses in all sectors invest more resources into organisational responses to the changing context, issues of ‘how we find and develop our leaders of the future’ have never been greater. Only by getting this right will companies be able to maximize their performance and societal impact in the years to come. 


CISL Lead Contact: Paul Begley, Programme Director, 

ABIS Lead Contact: Joris-Johann Lenssen, Managing Director,

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