Why executives are trying to show they care about more than just dollars

“People, particularly the younger generations, millennials and below, are taking enterprises to task,” said Russell Glass, CEO of Headspace Health, implying that customers will no longer support companies they don’t truly believe in.

The comments came during a Fortune virtual event on Wednesday focused on how organizations can foster sustainable and inclusive growth. This buzzy business topic comes, of course, as companies try to change the perception that they only care about dollars and growth.

The movement, known as ESG, for environmental, social, and governance, comes as workers increasingly demand that their employers show that they care. It’s become particularly important during the pandemic, which made many workers reevaluate their priorities and switch jobs—a phenomenon called the Great Resignation—to ones that have a more meaningful mission.

Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, said that if we’re going to talk so much about the Great Resignation, we must also consider the concurrent “great re-phasing of corporate America”, as leaders “redefine” what it means to sustainably run a business during a heath crisis.

Worker burnout has always been a problem and the pressures of the pandemic have only made it worse. Glass, from Headspace Health, noted that there is “a huge gap between what executives think they’re doing and what employees are receiving.” He mentioned a 2021 Headspace Health survey that revealed 60% of employers “say well-being is a priority in their organizations, yet only half of their employees agree.” This doesn’t mean important ESG progress isn’t happening, Glass noted. But it does mean whatever work executives are doing to improve their companies’ focus on sustainability and inclusivity is being poorly communicated.

The young job candidates who Albertsons Companies CEO Vivek Sankaran interviews these days are simultaneously interviewing him about strategy and ESG. “It’s not a question I got five years ago,” he said. By 2025, millennials are projected to make up about 75% of the workforce, and Generation Z is following close behind.

James Loree, CEO of Stanley Black & Decker, noted that today’s workers want “stability and they want trust.” In other words, he advised against making employees and customers guess what executives are doing.

In terms of measuring growth and ESG standards, Marriott International president Stephanie Linnartz said her company has a board committee that monitors “multi-year [environmental, social, and corporate governance] goals” on a three-year basis, releasing their progress publicly every quarter. This kind of dedication to ESG, specifically at a board-level is rare, she said, while adding that it should be “deeply embedded” in every company.

Progressive Insurance CEO Tricia Griffith said her company’s goal to become carbon neutral is public and the company is held accountable by regularly publishing sustainability reports. Martine Ferland, president and CEO at asset management company Mercer and vice chair at insurance company Marsh McLennan, suggested using social media for transparency and “to bring people along” the company’s journey.

Pledges, metrics, and social media engagement aside, Walgreens’ Brewer sees this pandemic as a wake-up call that businesses must heed. “I thought I was applying everything I’ve learned in my career,” she said of her pre-pandemic leadership tactics, “I thought I was applying everything that I’ve experienced as an African-American female working in the bottom of organizations to the top of organizations. But what I realize now as I’m trying
 to unravel vaccine mandates, getting hourly employees to come to work, watching female potential leaders of the world leave the workforce for nothing…I think we have not been listening, and I think what’s coming to bear for all of us, is to redefine first and foremost who we are as leaders.”

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