Executive Women Event 2024: ‘Are You a Responsible Decision Maker?’

Executive Women Event 2024: ‘Are You a Responsible Decision Maker?’
How can leaders – and women in particular – contribute to a more fair, more sustainable, and more resilient future? This can only be achieved by seeking the connection between corporate values and personal values in all strategic decisions, according to the speakers at the Executive Women Event 2024. Companies can no longer get away with not following the rules. ‘We must bring the moral compass of the individual to the company.’

In the anatomy building on the former Veterinary Grounds in Utrecht, a beautiful Art Nouveau building from 1921, veterinarians in training learned the basics of their profession. At that time, these were exclusively men. Now, around 100 top female executives from the business world and public sector are gathered in the building designed by deputy government architect Joseph Crouwel. They came for the ‘Women Economic Forum’, an event which strategy consultancy firm Kearney and executive search firm Partners at Work organize annually on the third Wednesday in January. After the reception in the monumental hall, the group moves to the anatomical theater. Where veterinary anatomy lectures were once held, three guest speakers now ’dissect’ the theme of this 11th edition: responsible decision making.

Getting on track proactively
Radical decisions are needed to balance profitability with doing the right thing for people and planet, Niki Vorselaars, Principal at Kearney, outlined the theme in her opening speech. ‘But what does responsible decision-making mean in this time of polycrisis and how do we make sure we make the right decisions? Beyond words and good intentions, how do we proactively move toward a fairer, more sustainable and more resilient future?’
Nicole Boevé of Partners at Work identifies the challenge of finding sustainable leaders. Are women leaders more responsible decision makers than their male counterparts? That question will also be addressed during the lectures and during the walking dinner in the former dissection room.

Other evaluation frameworks
The first speaker, Annemieke Roobeek, is a professor of strategy and transformation management at Nyenrode Business University as well as an entrepreneur, a supervisory board member at (international) companies and a member of various advisory bodies. She is also co-author of the book Responsible Business Decision Making. Strategic Impact Through Data and Dialogue. This book gives decision makers practical tools to make better business decisions relating to people, planet and profit.

The days when profit was the driving force behind most business decisions, according to Roobeek in her lecture, are definitely over. Other assessment frameworks are required now. This is necessitated in part by the major transformations in technology, climate, politics and society. In addition, a much larger and broader group of stakeholders than just shareholders must be taken into account, as well as laws and regulations such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), ESG criteria, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the EU Taxonomy that clarifies which activities may or may not be called sustainable. ‘Strategic and investment decisions have become much more complex as a result and must be measured against the standards of people, planet and profit far more than before,’ says Roobeek. ‘Transparency is becoming the norm for the entire production chain, ranging from how and under what working conditions production takes place to the emissions during each subsequent step in the chain. It does not exactly make doing business today easier, but it does make it more sustainable.’
Companies that have always been transparent about suppliers, production and emissions will be able to manage all these new requirements, Roobeek expects. Those who stuck their heads in the sand though should be seriously concerned about their future-proofing as ‘there is no turning back when it comes to operating responsibly and making responsible decisions.’

Going through scenarios
Including non-financial targets in decisions about investments and strategy, Roobeek says, only works if you can actually assign value to those non-financial targets. Ten years ago this was still difficult, but according to Roobeek there are today many more data techniques available to turn apples and pears into comparable units. She and her co-authors make these available in their book as referred to above. In addition, they spark a dialogue about questions such as: what is purpose? What do we want to commit to as a company? Where do we see opportunities?
Executives can also use the data to run through various scenarios, each with a different balance between people, planet and profit. Roobeek: ‘This helps them decide what impact they want to make and what risks they are willing to take. We do not tell them how far they should go, but we do say that they can think about the direction in which they want to move. You often hear from directors that they do not have enough tools or data to make balanced decisions, that they are comparing apples with oranges. We help them to do that faster and with more conviction. That will ultimately lead to better products and thus benefit the shareholder.’

Authentic leadership
Following on Roobeek’s outline of the systemic changes affecting businesses, the second speaker, Nupur Kohli, approaches the topic of responsible decision making from a more personal perspective. Life as a purpose, she calls her talk on how and why she has made decisions in her life - with the hope of inspiring others. After studying medicine at the University of Amsterdam, she worked, among other positions, as a medical advisor, she is secretary of the United Nations Association in the Netherlands and is a candidate for the Dutch House of Representatives. She now has her own consultancy firm for leadership issues, Vedanka, and is a Supervisory Board member of Shell. When she first attended a board meeting as an observer at age 25, it occurred to her how what was said there had the power to change things. ‘At the same time, I wondered if those directors themselves realized it. It fascinated me.’ Once she took on board positions herself, she was initially more concerned with how people perceived her (‘I saw myself through their eyes and saw gender, color, age’) than with the topic of the meeting itself. Those days are now far behind her. ‘When I walk into a boardroom now, it is about my vision and how I can contribute to change.’
Nonetheless, she likes to talk about her early experiences because, ‘Vulnerability is part of my journey toward leadership. One of my biggest fears is that during that journey I lose who I am as a person, and instead present myself as The Company. I think vulnerability is a healthy and necessary part of authentic leadership, and without authentic leadership you cannot make responsible decisions.’

Floating on the waves
The question companies should ask themselves - what is our right to exist, our purpose - also motivates Kohli when making decisions in her own career. ‘If I cannot answer that question properly, it is a sign that I need to change direction.’ For example, after a supervisory position at Unicef Netherlands, a supervisory board position at Shell followed. It may be a surprising move to the outside world, but she herself sees the parallels. ‘All companies have people who work there. Yet discussions in the boardroom are mainly about financial items and the health of the company as a whole. To me it is important that our decisions also benefit the health, happiness and satisfaction of the people who work there. I feel responsible for that.’
In doing so, she gradually learnt to consciously take a step back at times, deliberately putting herself ‘in a state of patience’ and ‘letting herself float on the waves.’ About this, she says, ‘It is not easy for someone like me who likes to do things quickly. Yet this too is a way for me to make responsible decisions, because sometimes certain insights come later.’
A final life lesson she wants to share has to do with the power of communication.
In her opinion, more organizations need to start recognizing that a nontraditional career path can lead to success and that young and diverse leadership can benefit a company. In practice, she is often confronted with people who think differently. ‘For example, I myself get a lot of questions about my age or my cultural background (Kohli’s parents are from India, ed.). In such cases I never react defensively, even when I notice that someone has prejudices. Instead, I try to understand where it comes from. And I look for arguments to make clear to the other person why I am convinced that change is necessary. We often express our opinions before we even ask questions, while for me specifically dialogue is a part of responsible decision making.’

Force for good
Can women make a difference towards a more fair, sustainable and resilient future? Are they taking more responsible decisions? It is at any rate most definitely the opinion of the third speaker. Prajna Khanna is Global Head of Sustainability and Vice President of Prosus Group, one of the world’s largest tech investors. She previously was Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Signify and Communications Manager at Greenpeace. ‘I am blatantly biased,’ she acknowledges. ‘Look at conflict zones. You see almost no women leaders there. The role women play, or actually do not play, fascinates me.’ In her lecture on responsible decision making, she shows herself to be combative. Responsibility, she says, has everything to do with ‘changing the way we own, consume and are. If we do not, it will be to the detriment of future generations.’
She outlines three stages of corporate development toward more responsible decision-making. The first stage (‘the minimum’) is to minimize harm to the planet, their own employees and the community that results from corporate activities. The next step is to give back to that community. ‘Use some of the money we make to solve their social and environmental problems. We, after all, make our profits in and often at the expense of that community.’ Ultimately, the third stage, companies will have to be a force for good. ‘Let us lead the sustainability transition together. It was great to work at Greenpeace and have the shared feeling that you are saving the world. It would be even more formidable if companies worked together to make a net positive impact.’

The power of technology
Since joining the Prosus Group, she is often asked about the higher purpose of this company’s investments in technology. ‘And it is unfortunately true that technology often has negative impacts. The war industry involves $2.240 trillion a year. That is $4.17 million every minute. Too often technology is used to develop weapons of destruction that undo all the progress we have made with so much pain and effort. If bombs are falling, as an entrepreneur you cannot think about sustainability. Then you are just surviving.’
Yet she firmly believes in the power of technology as a force for good. ‘Millions of people around the world without access to banks can now use financial services and products thanks to fintech. From home, without physical and polluting travel. The same goes for e-learning or e-health. Prosus invests primarily in innovative, local tech entrepreneurs that meet local needs, solve local problems and create local jobs. By supporting them, we also counterbalance the big tech companies from Silicon Valley.’
Her message: ‘We all have social norms, rules and laws that we must comply with. To protect the common good, limits are set on our freedom. On a micro level, we also hold people accountable to that. You get fined if you dump dirt or hurt your neighbor after a conflict. The schizophrenic thing is that companies and politicians escape liability far too often when they do not play by the rules. Responsible decision making is ultimately about connecting micro and macro levels by holding also companies accountable for their actions.’

Moral compass
With strategic decisions too, it is important to find the connection between micro and macro levels, between personal values and corporate values, was the conclusion of the meeting. ‘We need to bring the moral compass from the individual to the company,’ Maria de Kleijn of Kearney summarized the discussion. Women can play a key role in this, according to many of the attendees, because they often have a completely different approach when it comes to making decisions. What that means to her, Nupur Kohli articulates as follows: ‘You do your best to make the right decisions, but it is also your responsibility to recognize if in retrospect it proofs to not have been the right decision and then correct it.’

This article was published in Management Scope 03 2024.