The S in ESG is as crucial inside organizations as outside them.
Sometimes a question implies one answer, but receives the opposite. “The reward of labor is life,” the British designer and social activist William Morris once said. “Is that not enough?” Morris’ question was rhetorical. He presumed the answer was ‘yes’. And, when he asked it, in the 1800s, it might have been for most people. Work then was largely a transaction – a ticket to a living. With that in mind, social campaigners like Morris focused on improving working conditions, making employees’ daily travails physically less demanding than they might otherwise have been.
Fast forward 150 years, and – thankfully – Morris’ question begets a different response. For many people, working to live is insufficient. I was struck by the comments of Christina Schelling, senior vice president and chief talent and diversity officer of Verizon, at our Lead with Her event in London in the spring. Schelling called for organizations to be “human first” – meeting emotional, social and practical objectives for their people, rather than merely commercial and vocational ones. “What this means is providing things that equal all of the pieces that make us human,” she told delegates, “whether it’s mental, emotional or physical.”
Schelling’s point spoke to an important truth. No longer do people simply consider labor as a ticket to a livelihood, as in Morris’ day. They demand satisfaction, belonging and purpose from their roles. And that demands a brand of leadership that can provide the humanitarian needs that Schelling outlined.
The S in ESG – the social corner of the pyramid – is often interpreted as companies working to improve the social fabric of the societies in which they operate. That is an important practice. Yet sociability to one’s colleagues – support, companionship and care – is of equal standing. Schelling made her comments during a panel on the Great Resignation – the tendency, amplified by the pandemic, for employees to question the non-commercial value of their jobs and, having seen the poor results of their assessment, quit.
The Great Resignation is a trend witnessed in all genders. It is more pronounced in women. McKinsey reports that a third of women in corporate America are considering leaving the workforce or ‘downshifting’ – taking less demanding, lower responsibility roles for smaller salaries. The report also found a growing number of female professionals are taking medical leave to combat exhaustion and stress. This is a double whammy. Not only are organizations losing valued colleagues, they are also losing the very people who often provide the support and care that is required to turn the tide. “Women drive the wellness efforts in organizations,” my Duke Corporate Education colleague Carla Carter told Lead with Her. “So when they leave companies, a lot of those efforts stop.”
Providing the S inside organizations might fall disproportionately on women, but it ought not to. Today’s leaders, of any gender, must be as socially skilled inside their organizations as they are socially driven outside them. A failure to connect with our people will lead to the Great Resignation claiming yet more respected professionals, critically damaging companies from the inside, out.
Work should be rewarding and invigorating. And it can be, if leaders can make it so. Morris was a man of his time. The world was different then. Perhaps today he might say: “If the only reward of labor is life, that is nowhere near enough.”
Sharmla Chetty is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education.