Global Compact Network Singapore

So You Want To Be A Sustainable, Forward-Thinking Business?

We talk to social activist and CEO of National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, Melissa Kwee, for her views on what truly enables a business to be resilient.

So You Want To Be A Sustainable, Forward-Thinking Business?
Melissa Kwee

“What is the world coming to?” We’re willing to bet that you or a loved one has lamented the state of the world in the past few years — and you’re not alone. In his address at the 2018 United Nations General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that the world is currently suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”. But what can business leaders do to help mitigate this?

To find out, we caught up with Melissa Kwee, Chief Executive Officer of National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), who will be one of the panel speakers at the Opening Plenary of the Global Compact Network Singapore Summit, which will be taking place on 12 November about business resilience.

The Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS) is the national lead agency promoting corporate sustainability. With the theme for its summit this year being “Reimagining Businesses for Resilience”, participants will get to explore global trends in sustainability and what it means to be a progressive, forward-thinking business. This summit offers a conducive and collaborative environment for businesses in Singapore and around the region to come together to discuss key sustainability issues and identify solutions.

Prior to the GCNS, here’s a sneak preview on what Kwee thinks it takes to build business resilience for the long run.

In your stand, how would you define “business resilience” in terms of the top three qualities a business must build to attain resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a destabilising shock, the source of which could be internal, external, human, technological, environmental, political, social, or economic in nature.  With change as a constant, one might argue that resilience is not optional, but a necessary quality for all businesses.

What must a business do to strengthen resilience? I believe it comes down to people. Systems, technology and processes can fail as responses, but people are ultimately the last and most important defence. Therefore, an organisation’s goal would be to build a resilient workforce and culture that embraces change and can bounce back better than ever after a setback. Veteran Wall Street trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, calls this quality “antifragile” in his book of this title. Antifragile is beyond resilience or robustness. Resilience restores whereas antifragility causes an entity to get stronger.

What is required from antifragility (let’s call it super-resilience) is the ability to embrace failure, randomness, incompleteness, and unpredictability. If we cannot lean into this with some joy, we will not embrace the lesson in the feedback. Secondly, a business must be able to iterate quickly and pivot to capture new learning and value. Finally, there must be a willingness to let go of efficiency and optimisation as the primary goal of a system. In resilience, a level of functional redundancy is required to be able to test, analyse feedback, and respond with relevant changes on an ongoing basis. This list is not exhaustive but illustrative.

Speakers at the GCNS Summit 2018: Ho Ren Hua, CEO, Thai Wah Public Company Limited and Pearl Yu, Director of Marketing & Human Resources, Keystone Cable

What do you think is the single most important vision that businesses all over the world should share, in order to operate with longevity and to benefit the world?

I don’t believe in “shoulds”. No leader does what they should do; they do either what is right or what they have to do. For the game-changers of the world, the two coincide. What is fundamentally important as a vision for business is to know that the purpose of business is to serve people and increase human happiness and our collective goodness. To that extent, businesses need people and people are motivated by contributing to a positive good in the world.

Longevity requires a business to meet a need in the market and operate in a manner that is aligned with the expectations and goals of the operating environment, be it the community, city, state or country. Real longevity is not a function of existing because of funding, but because a real need is being met and there is a business and operating model that supports this. Good relationships underpin every successful business — relationships with bankers, employees, customers, suppliers and partners. This also applies to how a good government is important for good businesses. Good governments enable good businesses to flourish, while corrupt governments destroy their country’s human or environmental resources for short-term, private gain. Here, their businesses can be enriched but at the expense of the environment, destroying the common wealth and ultimately, their communities and lives.

Businesses should think of themselves as stewards, because stewardship isn’t just about the short-term goals, but a specific form of leadership laser-focused on a long-term vision. That doesn’t mean short-term goals can be neglected, however. On the contrary, being a good steward means keeping things running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, but also having the foresight and ability to plan for the future.

What do you think are the most important social commitments that business leaders should undertake for a company and its ecosystem to be sustainable?

To have all members of one’s ecosystem commit to doing good and right. Think stakeholders and not just shareholders.

Measure multiple forms of capital creation or destruction beyond financial, to include human, social and natural capital. This has been known as The Five Capitals, which is also similar to the Economics of Mutuality.  In Singapore, we are strengthening the Company of Good framework with these models and metrics. Company of Good was developed by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) in June 2016 to empower businesses operating in Singapore to give in strategic, sustainable and impactful ways.

For leaders, do what your family would be proud to know you have done and sleep well with a clear conscience.

Led by Melissa Kwee, the NVPC is the steward of the City of Good vision for Singapore, which strives to bring individuals, organisations, and leaders together to give their best for others. Their annual Giving Week movement, happening from 1 to 7 Dec, is a season when everyone can share your time, talent, treasure and voice to support a cause you believe in.

What is your personal take on spearheading change in the business environment for a positive change to the world? Can you give an example?

It is difficult. It can make you unpopular with different stakeholders and it challenges you to think how to create win-win situations for multiple stakeholders instead of just optimising for shareholders. 

When I worked with the founding team of Capella Singapore at Pontiac Land and we decided that we wanted to review our labour supply chain and eliminate exploitative labour broking practices, I received many warnings and kind recommendations that this was going to be more expensive and troublesome as new processes and skills would be required.  We had discovered that foreign workers often went through employment agents who would charge them anywhere from six months’ to an egregious two years’ worth of their future salaries as the fee to get a job. This did not give the best talent, only the desperate and available talent. Such extreme financial insecurity might also cause someone to engage in illegal work or exploitative behaviour to enhance their own security. The leadership decided this was not what we wanted for business and ethical reasons, so we overhauled and created a new approach that selected the best people for the jobs, prepared them well, and offered transparent and fair contracts to all. I believe this created a stronger morale and made for a more loyal and motivated workforce. It was not without cost and effort, but what is the value of a life?    

At the hotel, we have also sought to eliminate plastic bottles. This has cost us $40,000 more – but we are committed to it and we believe our customers appreciate this. We will find other ways to otherwise save or make money. Everything comes down to priorities. 

If you could incorporate one practice in every company, what would it be and why?

A deliberate and thoughtful community engagement for all members of the team, preferably including families (for instance, family days). People must always remember why they are in business. Managers must see their people as fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, not just workers.  People work hard for their families and so their families can have a better life. Stronger families support business success. At a societal level, weak and broken families are a cost on the wider system, as most social services exist to provide proxies for family support or remedies for abuse or neglect. Businesses play a role in creating happiness in society by having happier employees.

To hear Melissa Kwee speak further, we encourage you to attend the GCNS Summit. GCNS is the Singapore chapter of the United Nations Global Compact. Book your tickets to GCNS Summit 2019 on 12 November at this link.

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