Leaders in a call to action

A dialogue with Dr. Bettina Hartmann, Director of Foresense, on sustainability and responsibility. Foresense, an innovative new programme at the Executive School of the University of St.Gallen, aims to support senior executives at international companies in identifying and executing purposeful, responsible leadership in an environment of rapid change.

Sustainability and responsibility are a must today more than ever, especially by young people. What does this mean for companies?

Companies and leaders are under increasing pressure with regard to sustainability and responsibility. This pressure comes from various stakeholders, including customers. For example, they may or may not buy certain products because they are not sustainable enough. The press also exerts influence and can have a significant impact on a company’s reputation. Social media is another influential factor. Today’s consumers are more informed and can quickly see what values a company represents and how responsibly it acts, as the latest example from Siemens shows. If a company does not act in a sustainable manner, society reacts very quickly. This is where managers and companies have to react if they want to be successful. If a company acts responsibly and ethically, it can differentiate itself significantly from its competitors in the long-term.


  1. Why do companies have difficulty when it comes to transformation? Why is business lagging behind in this regard?

In order to transform, change is needed – changes in awareness, changes in structures, changes in strategies and, above all, changes in behaviour. Patterns need to be broken and this is always associated with resistance. Incentives must be created to drive change. Transformation takes place mainly in behaviour and structures. It is a long way from the realization of “Hey, I should do something” to an actual change in behaviour. And if the incentives to change are not strong enough, then it takes even longer. Companies and managers often lack the right tools. This is where we want to support them in moving out of their comfort zone.


  1. How can companies be sustainable, meet the needs of shareholders and at the same time meet the challenges of digitalisation?

The pressure from shareholders to be successful can certainly lead to conflicts of interest between short-term and long-term profit orientation. This is where leaders have a responsibility to find sustainable solutions and generate added value for society. Only in this way can a company be viable in the long term. Companies need a purpose and here I see a unique challenge for leaders: that they authentically live the purpose of the company. Many companies, especially traditional ones, are committed to a purpose, but if you take a closer look, you often notice that the purpose is not really lived. Leaders have to adapt processes, live the purpose and take responsibility themselves; they have to walk the talk. Digitalisation opens up numerous opportunities in this respect. With the right know-how, a lot can be achieved in the area of sustainability.


  1. Why are leaders and companies today seen as needing to take more responsibility?

Each of us influences the future through the actions we take today. We have to decide what we want our contribution to be. Do we want to destroy public goods by not behaving sustainably, or do we want to build a future for the next generation? This requires a conscious decision, it requires leaders who reflect and contribute to a future in which we live together in peace in this world.

Executive School Programmes:


Foresense is packed with insights from research, solutions from practice and takeaways from workshops on the topics most critical to your organization. It provides top international leaders with a powerful understanding of the changing world in which they act. The 3.5-day Programme offers the knowledge, tools and networks to purposefully create a future where people and technology must co-create long-term, sustainable value for business and society.
  1. What skills does a leader need to meet these challenges?

It requires openness and willingness to make a difference; leaders who accept change and want to tackle it actively. It demands new ways of working together, it requires sustainable and responsible thinking, regardless of the industry. It needs future-oriented leaders who are prepared to accept short-term profit losses in order to create long-term added value. It takes courage, a vision, empathy, the ability to delegate and inspire employees. A good leader has respect for his employees and the environment. With the arrival of new generations, these high standards will be even more in demand.


Are there best practice examples from companies?

There are hardly any companies that do everything well from A to Z. But there are numerous elements and initiatives by companies that go in the right direction. In my opinion, successful start-ups are good examples. The founder of a start-up has a vision and values, s/he identifies a need in the market and s/he finds a team that is extremely committed to this. What the start-up lacks, of course, are structures, processes and often the size to make a big difference. Building this up is a challenge.

The question is also, what does sustainable growth mean? Does it mean generating more and more profit or does it mean creating added value for all stakeholders in the market, paying fair wages an producing high quality products? It is a fact that companies are constantly challenged to react to environmental changes and ultimately, I see the responsibility as being in the hands of the individual leaders, who have the power to make good decisions and become role models for their employees.



About the author
Martina Müri Martina is responsible for all public relations activities at the Executive School.Before joining ES-HSG, she worked as a PR consultant and communications specialist. She is a graduate of the University of St.Gallen and holds a Master's degree in International Affairs and Governance (M.A. HSG).