“Do not work for ‘climate wreckers,’” UN Secretary General António Guterres told new university graduates recently in no uncertain terms. Survey after survey shows that sustainability has become an important factor for employees when choosing roles. HSBC found that "companies who balance people, planet and profit are reaping the benefit when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best talent," while IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that "more than two-thirds of the full potential workforce respondents are more likely to apply for and accept jobs with environmentally and socially responsible organizations."
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, employers have been grappling with the “great resignation” as employees evaluate their goals and values. Today, businesses need to work hard to gain and retain talent. As a startup operating on a blank canvas, it’s the optimal time to make your business resilient by building it around sustainability principles.
Here are some tips on how to go about it from my own experience of building two successful startups before the age of 30.
• Start with a vision.
Today, your organization is small and nimble. Yes, you are already spinning too many plates (I know I do), but now is your chance to put in place the right structures, mission, values and processes that can help you grow into a successful enterprise.
No doubt you have set your economic goals early on; however, have you looked beyond the spreadsheet and financial forecasts to the wider governance framework? How do you want your employees to feel working for the company? How do you want the world to see your company? What are your environmental, social and governance goals? The business plan is just the start, and it’s never too early to build a solid corporate development plan.
• Take care of your staff from day one.
This doesn’t have to mean pool tables and a beer fridge (although those help, too). How many stories have you read over the years about hot-shot startup founders getting things very wrong with their leadership and staff management?
When I started my first business at age 16, I had no idea what it meant to be a boss. Yes, I read a few management books, but it was very much learning by doing. However, I knew even back then that people were my most valuable asset. Having a well-defined HR policy appears superfluous when you have one member of staff, but it’s important not to miss the boat when business momentum picks up.
• Reinvent the office.
As a fresh entrepreneur, chances are you consider your office more as a state of mind rather than a traditional brick-and-mortar place. Starting a business where flexible and remote working is the norm from the beginning means you are able to build a culture of belonging even if there aren’t any “watercooler moments.” Equipping your team with the necessary tech to work wherever they are also means you can build resilience into your business with a solid business continuity strategy.
• Greenwashing is not going to fly.
Even if your business is not closely aligned to addressing climate change, thinking green across all business functions is a must today. We do need to adapt to climate change, there are no two ways about it. The time for talking, or even worse, for pretending, is over. The right talent will care for the environment and see right through any shallow promises.
• Choose your supply chain carefully.
Globalization has brought with it many benefits; however, convoluted, opaque supply chains have had widespread side effects in the form of environmental and human rights abuses. It’s time to think of your supply chain as an extension of your business and choose your suppliers wisely. Anything that you would not want to happen within your organization should not happen within a partner organization. Out of sight cannot mean out of mind. Building a sustainable supply chain is time consuming, but that's nothing compared to retrofitting it later down the line. Just ask any large enterprise scrambling to reach NetZero and meet ESG goals.
• Diversify your workforce.
We are going through an important period of adjusting cultural wrongs, and it’s important to not slip into the habits of old and recruit from a narrow talent pool. A diverse workforce is not just about looks, but talent from varied backgrounds brings a wealth of different knowledge and experiences to the table, which will lead to better outcomes and a more equal world. Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men provided shocking insights into just how damaging a homogenous talent pool has been in the history of the industrialized world.
• Give back to the community wherever you are.
Communities around the world have been positively and negatively affected by the proliferation of global tech giants. The downside has been the concentration of vast wealth between very few people, while economies and communities on the ground have seen very little trickle-down effect. While you might not have the lofty ambitions of running a business worth $100 billion, building a strong link to the local communities you operate in is very important. That starts from the basics, such as making sure you pay local taxes, volunteering for local causes and employing local people.
• Think big!
ESG has been big news in corporate, investor and governance circles over the last few years, and its importance is ever-growing. With regulations around ESG reporting tightening in many regions, building your business according to these principles is now becoming a must rather than a nice to have.
We are at the start of a complete reimagining of how business should work for society, the environment and the world as a whole. It is not an easy journey, but by building a solid foundation for a sustainable business, you can ensure you attract the best people to have by your side on the way to the top.
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