South Asia, trying to win the race of Corporate Sustainability

Umesh Mukhi

South Asia, trying to win the race of Corporate Sustainability

The Interview is an exclusive part of Mindthis Sustainable Leadership Series which features cutting edge thought leadership from change makers across the world.

South Asia has experienced tremendous growth in last decade, along with this growth the continent also faces multiple sustainability issues interlinked with social and economic context, what’s the status quo of business in the context of Sustainability? Are companies doing enough to pursue the CSR agenda? In an exclusive interview with  Junice Yeo ,Director for South Asia of global sustainability consulting firm, Corporate Citizenship, we find our answers.

Junice SLI (1)

Can you share some perspectives about your professional experience and your passion about sustainability? 

I spent a good part of my career in China – first for a French food company, Danone; and then for a large-scale government sustainability project. Working and living in China was a humbling experience. On the one hand you know you’re working for a sustainable future for the Chinese people, at the same time you are exposed to so many cultural, historical and economic issues that make you realize it’s not a linear approach of just developing a green city.

My work in the public and private sectors made me realize the complexities in businesses as factors in economic, social and governance spheres intertwine. I had the privilege of working with some very sophisticated clean-tech and sustainable architecture companies during my role with the Swiss trade and investment government agency. It made me realize that sustainability issues actually exist in some form or other in our jobs. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge and embrace it is where it makes a difference.

Do you think that we are reaching a tipping point where sustainability is really being integrated in the strategy of the company, can you highlight the opportunities and challenges of the CSR trend in regional and global companies in Southeast Asia? 

There’s no doubt that sustainability is rapidly gaining importance among companies in Southeast Asia. This region – with its market size, growing middle class and skilled young population – has made it incredibly attractive for global companies. But I would be mindful to pass a sweeping statement that the region is now taking sustainability seriously.

But it is apparent that as global trade with the region flourishes, local companies begin to feel the pressure to practice responsible business. Economic growth has also lifted poverty lines in the under-developed countries, and success stories of rural communities receiving proper sanitation and education support are growing.

It is very important to note that every market has its own distinctive characteristic, and as a result sustainability issues should be handled quite carefully across the ASEAN countries. Developing markets such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have growing NGO presence. This has impacted the way companies conduct themselves. Supply chain management and community impact studies are more widely practiced in large, resource-rich markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Whereas Singapore – well regarded as a stable, thriving regional hub for many global MNCs – has in fact one of the lowest sustainability reporting levels in the region. CSR is often misunderstood here as charity donations. In fact, a common remark often heard among companies in Singapore is that there aren’t enough employee volunteering projects to do!

What is the role of Leadership in companies to put CSR on top of agenda? Is it directly or indirectly related to CSR efforts? 

I believe more than half the battle won if CSR is led from the top in Southeast Asia.  As much as companies are increasingly adopting western-style approaches in their functions, hierarchical management is still very much ingrained in Asian corporate culture today. Even global companies operating in this region are aware that middle managers are used to taking orders from the top, and challenging a senior at a discussion is still not common practice.

So if leadership is half the battle won, the other half should be sustained commitment, that is – to persevere and keep CSR close to the mission, vision and values that drive the company. This is especially vital for when the company experiences unexpected market volatility.

Talking about CSR, why is it still challenging to change the profit oriented mindset of companies and employees to be sensitive about the sustainability issues? What could be the possible solutions to alter it to people, planet and profit oriented mindset? 

As rudimentary as it sounds, I think we need to keep in mind that the business of doing business is to make money and generate profits. Being a public company, shareholders’ concerns on hitting targets each quarter makes it even more pressurizing for the one at the helm to take his/her business mandate seriously.

An interesting observation a client made to me a while back, was that among several country managers in the region who had sustainability within their management portfolio – the only ones who gave serious commitment to CSR work – around 4 out of 10 – were ones who had a personal setback or ‘an awakening moment’ in their personal lives – losing someone close, or personally witnessing a catastrophe.

Of course this should not mean that we all need to go through the ‘baptism of fire’ to know the true value of sustainability. Sustainability today is no longer a constraint for growth and profit-making, but regarded by many leaders as a platform for all kinds of amazing opportunities. By exposing employees to volunteering, diverse mindsets and cultural immersion programs, we empathize better with the issues and open ourselves up to working for bigger causes.

So if you would have to define Sustainable Leadership, what would be your definition? 

The word ‘sustainable’ is the quintessence in great leadership. It means to be upheld and defended, while it conserves and endures. In this regard, a good leader is aware of his role in society, and seeks to leave a legacy that outlives his or her time.

What would be the three key advises for individuals and companies who are keen to develop Sustainable Leadership? 

Empathize with those you work with. This enhances dialogue and builds trust among people, and it can really make a difference to the amount of support you get to accomplish things.

Be brave enough to accept loss and criticism. Pride gets in the way of many important decisions and actions, but a leader is able to recognize that there is a lesson to be learnt from failures, and that you won’t know you succeed until you’ve failed before. The rest of that bravery should be used to inspire others along your journey.

Take ownership. Sustainable leadership is a powerful and instinctive tool that each one of us should use to guide the way to conduct ourselves, at work and at home. It has a vision of what we interpret to be a sustainable future, a mission that we work toward, and the values to guide us over the long haul.

About Junice Yeo

Junice is the Director for Southeast Asia of global sustainability consulting firm, Corporate Citizenship. The firm is one of the longest standing advisories in corporate sustainability, headquartered in the UK.

Junice is a brand marketing specialist by training.  She was responsible for brand development and management at Danone in China. She later worked for the Singapore Tourism Board where her role was to establish the Singapore brand in the tourism sector for the promotion of future investments and tourism development. Junice also headed the Marketing Communications for large-scale government project in China, working alongside Siemens and General Motors on their green initiatives.

Junice was a Public Service Commission Humanities Scholar from Hwa Chong Junior College in Singapore, and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of New South Wales in Australia. Junice is well-known in her community as a fast-paced worker, a slow traveller, and an avid wildlife supporter.

The Interview can also be accessed on Sustainable Leadership Blog. The Sustainable Leadership Initiative is global platform to showcase best practices and engage trans-sector dialogue from business, government and social sector across the world in context of sustainability and leadership. You can follow them on Twitter: @sleadersummit and make sure you like them on Facebook!