Would you be embarrassed if your family knew what you really do?

‘Spend my life trying to create the space for us to think - as a mother, wife, friend, business leader and CEO. Love to share inspiring ideas to help us grow’. Reads Sacha Romanovitch’s Twitter profile.

A descriptor you might expect from someone running a small ethical retailer, perhaps, not the CEO of the UK arm of one of the world’s biggest professional services firms, Grant Thornton.

Romanovitch, speaking at The Crowd’s Connected Leadership event, however didn’t come across as your average professional services chief. Along with other panelists, Lord John Browne the ex-CEO of BP and author of Connect, a new book looking at how companies succeed by engaging with society, Helena Morrissey who heads up Newton Investment Management and Tommy Stadlen the re-founder of Polaroid, she spoke in a very human way about the purpose of business being to provide value for society.

Refreshing words to hear from a panel of business leaders, yet not new ones for those of us who work in sustainable business. So what does the opening up of the idea that business success is linked to the role it plays in society actually mean for us?

The connected leadership discussion throws into sharp relief the importance of what we do being connected to both society and the core of the businesses we work for. If not, there is some risk of it being used to hide a rather more ugly truth. As Browne said: “When abused, CSR can be used to cover up attempts to defraud society”.

The degree to which these and other leaders ‘get’ that a social purpose needs to run to the core of any successful business does present some challenge to sustainability teams working away on nice projects in the corner.

Browne argued that ‘gaining society’s trust must be an outcome of a company’s fundamental business activity otherwise it will be found out’. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

McKinsey research conducted for Connect found that 30% of a company’s value is at stake should it be disconnected from society. When the VW emissions scandal broke in September of last year, its share price dropped 35% in two days.

Sustainability on the fringe, rather than simply a business’ modus operandi, is dangerous, VW case in point. Should you be in the CSR team, it could also be dangerous for you professionally. Who knows what the VW sustainability teams’ prospects look like?

Listening to the panel discussion, one of the things I was most struck by was the degree of personal integrity. I felt a strong sense, from each of the panelists that knowing that they’d done the right thing was a strong guiding force.

Romanovitch said when faced with a tough decision she asks herself the question ‘would I be embarrassed if my family knew?’. Given how open the work of sustainability teams can be to abuse, perhaps its a question we should be asking ourselves too. Along with am I comfortable with my company’s fundamental business activity? Is there a service it delivers to society which is inherently valuable? Does it align with my personal values?

Being a leader is not necessarily about being the CEO. Leaders are those who are prepared to take calculated risks based on doing what they think is the right thing. To be connected leaders, we in sustainability, should make sure that the work we do is meaningful because we do it for companies that, as Browne said, demonstrate an uncompromising effort to be inclusive of society.

More on connected leadership:

Top 10 tweets on the rift between business & society

Watch Lord Browne's speech on connected leadership

Watch Sacha Romanovitch, Lord Browne, Tommy Stadlen and Helena Morrissey discuss connected leadership

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