Corona can open the door for more sustainable management

If the coronavirus had done one good thing, it has shown us how we can start living and working more sustainably, argues management professor Steen Hildebrandt.

By Annemette Schultz Jørgensen

If business leaders take two things away from the corona outbreak, Steen Hildebrandt, Denmark’s leading authority on management, reckons that they should be, one, that everything is tied together, and, two, that we all have a responsibility for making sure things turn out right.

Hildebrandt is crossing his fingers that managers will be able to act on what the situation has taught us to move the idea of sustainable management from something everyone talks about to something everyone does.

As professor emeritus, Hildebrand is one of the country’s leading thinkers when it comes to management. He is also considered to be one of the country’s go-to authorities on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

And while Covid-19 is something he’d prefer that the world hadn’t experienced, he believes that if the situation reinforces emerging thinking about management it could have some positive outcomes, not least when it comes to sustainability, because, as far as he sees it, the message of sustainability is precisely that things are connected, and that we all have a personal responsibility to make the world a better place.

When it comes to sustainable management, that would be fortunate; the idea is still in its infancy amongst Danish managers, according to Hildebrandt.

“I’m saddened by the crisis the world is in right now, but I’m also permitting myself to be optimistic about the possibility that we might take something positive away from the situation, not least today’s managers in the field of sustainable management. The crisis has taught us some hard lessons, but it has established some extremely important messages that are also crucial to understanding what sustainable management is all about. Before all this started, these probably would have been messages many managers saw at as high-brow discussions that mostly concerned academics, but the crisis has given them a first-hand look at the difficult choices we face today,” Hildebrandt says.

If a bat flaps its wings in China

To understand the first of Hildebrandt’s messages – that everything is connected – consider this: if scientists are right, a virus in a single bat at a market in China is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, millions of people losing their jobs, the world’s economies grinding to a halt and what is likely to be the one of the worst economic downturns in modern history. All in just a matter of months.

“This has demonstrated to us in the matter of a very short time just how connected the world is, how small our world is, and how vulnerable we are. The sustainability gurus have been going on about this for many years now, but now managers are getting a crash course in what it all means. Things that happen on the other side of the planet can have disastrous consequences for small-business owners here in safe little Denmark. This time around it was an illness we were dealing with, but people have suddenly understood what the sustainability message is all about and that the same thing applies when we are talking about climate and the way we treat the planet,” Hildebrandt says.

For Hildebrandt, this isn’t just a matter of realising that something that happens in China can reach us here in the West faster than we know it. It is also – and this is the second message he wants to get across – a matter of the opposite being true.

“If we say that things are tied together, then we’re also saying that the things I do can have consequences someplace else on the planet. That means that the decisions managers here make have consequences that can extend far beyond their employees, their shareholders or any of the people we normally consider stakeholders. This, in turn, leads us to the realisation that managers need to think much more carefully about the impacts of the actions they take and the decisions they make; their responsibility extends far.”

Looking out for the community’s best interest is in firm’s best interest

In Hildebrandt’s experience, a lot of managers feel that the biggest eye-opener during Covid-19 and our response to it has been that no-one has been able to escape it, no matter what you do, or how well you do it.  For those few who have come through it unscathed, it has been more a matter of being lucky than being good.

“What this has done has been to juxtapose what firms see as their best interest and what is in the best interest of the community. This situation has made it clear that what’s in the best interest of the community is often in the best interest of society; so, having a well-functioning health service that can keep people healthy is necessary for firms to be able to sell their goods and services, even though a business has nothing to do with the healthcare industry. Because if people are dying in droves or if they are too sick or too scared to go outside, then I can’t do my job, and that doesn’t matter whether I work for an airline, a consultancy or a hairdresser.”

If something has sunk in with firms, it is, according to Hildebrandt, that they, too, have an interest in keeping people healthy and keeping the air clean, and that we’re not provoking natural disasters.

“Put another way, looking out for the community’s best interest is in firm’s best interest.”

Rethinking what is possible

But one thing is managers seeing the sustainability light while they are social-distancing themselves. It’s something else entirely to translate that into actual sustainable management when the lockdowns end. Hildebrandt thinks the answer is to keep doing some of the things we began doing in order to adapt to life during a lockdown, many of which can contribute to sustainability.

“Let’s face it, these past few months have simply been an exercise in survival for most of us, but, if you think about it, the way we’ve been working, collaborating and organising ourselves have made us more sustainable. Having the flexibility to work from home has become the new normal, and that’s meant less commuting, which has helped people find a better work-life balance. Meetings and office collaboration can be done over Skype, Zoom or Teams, which has put paid to flying. For me, this is all part of a new sustainability movement, that – sure, we did it because we were forced to – but it’s got managers to think about sustainability more and I think this is something we will see continue.”

During the outbreak, Hildebrandt has been in self-quarantine in his family’s second home, in rural northern Jutland. Yet, that hasn’t prevented him from holding lectures, going to meetings or taking part in seminar. He’s just doing all of it on-line. And the fact that technology has made that possible has got him to think about what else might be possible.

“Almost every single business leader I’ve spoken with while all of this has been happening has told me that the crisis has shown them that it is possible to work in totally different ways that are more sustainable. We don’t need to hold as many meetings or fly around the world as much as we do. And, when we do need to do it, we ought to put more thought into how we do it. Those are the lessons a lot of people have told me they expect to take away from this.”

A kinder, more compassionate management

Hildebrandt has also watched the emergence of a more understanding, empathetic management style while we’ve all been working from home. He hopes it doesn’t go away when we all start going back into the office. 

“At the same time, I’ve noticed that when it comes to the human-resource dimension, organisations are behaving in a more humane, friendly and inclusive manner. One way you can see this is the way in which employees are accommodated and accepted by workplaces; companies are now willing to be more understanding. Another way is how managers and companies are getting involved further down the value chain, where a new form of compassion has emerged.”

This, according to Hildebrandt, is going on at some of Denmark’s biggest firms – companies the likes of Grundfos, Novo Nordisk and Salling Group – who now pre-pay their vendors to help them get through the downturn. Likewise, leading executives have appealed to businesses that can afford it to give a hand to those that need help most.

“This is an unprecedented form of empathy and compassion amongst companies, but which makes sense in the current situation. If companies are going to survive they’re going to have to look out for each other. You can't just sit around and expect the government to come along and save everyone. If you have the resources to help others, you have an obligation to do so.”

No going back

With his take-aways, the new ways of working together and organising ourselves, and the new forms of inclusive and considerate leadership, Hildebrandt hopes, and indeed believes, that the Covid-19 outbreak can become a stepping stone for more sustainable leadership. He recommends, on the one hand, that firms do this voluntarily and, on the other, that it be mandated by law. He also suggests that if we want leaders to do more once the outbreak is over then we should keep the pressure on them.

“I hope that Danish managers will show a greater sense of solidarity post-corona, when they no longer need the enormous handouts they have received in the form taxpayer-financed aid packages. And I believe that of course we can make it clear to them that they have a kind of obligation to repay the help they’ve received in some form of other.”

Covid-19, according to Hildebrandt, has shown that we don’t live sustainably, and that the planet is suffering badly as a result.

“So, we can’t go back to the world as it looked before. We need to build something new. A lot of firms are already doing something, but a lot more are still flat-footed on this. And there I really hope this situation becomes a natural stepping stone towards more and more sustainable approach and a new sense of responsibility amongst business leaders. We need managers and firms to take the lead, and I think we can do more to appeal directly to them to do this in return for the huge handouts we’ve just given them. A repayment of some form would be welcome; why not start with sustainable management?”

This article was originally published in Danish on Djøf’s website.