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niall-dunne-btchris cNiall Dunne is the Chief Sustainability Officer for BT, working with BT’s Chief Executive, Chairman and executive management team to bring the company’s purpose, to use the power of communications to make a better world, to life. GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter recently interviewed Niall to gain insight on the value BT puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

Published 2 September 2014


QWhat is your perspective on the leadership required today in this fast changing world?

AWe need more fearless leadership, especially from business. Let me explain.

Great leaders have often come from the realm of government – either elected officials or people engaged in struggle with their governments. Our most remarkable historic leaders – Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi –had a fearless vision for driving the human race forward. These were not perfect individuals by any stretch of the imagination, but they were able express and commit to a bold style of leadership that inspired and drove real change. We have seen less of this type of leadership from the realm of government lately, in part because governments are focused largely on local or regional issues and our greatest challenges today are truly global systemic challenges.

At the same time, we are experiencing a shift of power from the nation-state to business as many of the largest economies on the planet today are corporations. In fact, there has been an invisible passing of the baton of power from countries to business. Despite this shift, there is very little realization within business that companies need to provide a new type of leadership, one that has similarities to that of fearless leaders such as Mandela and JFK. Given their size and impact, there is a need for business leaders to be much more courageous in providing leadership to address these global systemic challenges we face, such as climate change, economic inequality, etc. 

What are the obstacles to having business people express this type of leadership?

In the media leaders are frequently prohibited from emerging as fearless leaders. There is such a huge degree of scrutiny of CEOs into what she says or how she operates that it stifles the type of leadership we need.

The role of the media is critical as our most important challenges aren’t being properly represented. In fact, often the opposite is happening – we are experiencing mass misinformation. This isn’t about left or right either, it is about presenting the facts and fostering true dialogue.

What’s the solution? Is this about technology?

While technology can play an important role in driving change, it is actually less technical and more emotional. Fearlessness is the courage to put your job on the line because these things matter more than any one earnings statement or your next job. This requires passion as well as technical expertise and good systems thinking.

We live in an age of celebrity advocacy and this has a lot to do with the power of emotion. Some celebrities have followings bigger than most news outlets. While historically some celebrities have played with causes, some are now making it more core to how they are representing themselves and building communities leading to opportunities to engage their entire following and drive change. There are huge opportunities there.

Think of James Cameron’s Avatar – this was born out of an insight into where the world was going and what the creative world can do about this. Not in a ‘green’ inconvenient truth sort of way but more by using the power of cinema to engage the masses on the issue of sustainability really. The emotional power of things like cinema and music can’t be underestimated and we need it to mobilise change at scale.

The doom and gloom messages and scare tactics won’t really engage the majority of us. It might alert President Obama in a briefing about what is coming but people in the street can’t get their heads around it. Why would I consume less? How do I make a decision that weights all the complex trade offs related to sustainability? This is a very challenging space for people to get their heads around.

Now, here is where communications technology does come in. Better technology can help with mainstream engagement and empowerment. For example, Nest in my house is beautifully designed and it is changing my environmental impact, making my life easier. There is a great deal of value in this type of technology. We also see the impact of sharing economy in brands such as Zipcar, AirBnB and others. In the auto industry, while Better Place failed, Tesla is now building upon the good work done and through design and technology, making sustainability work for people at scale.

We need to focus on positives and the upside in order to get to game changing opportunities. We have to excite people. While we see traditional media struggling to understand where they fit in this new world, we see social media, celebrities and disruptive communications platforms all coming together to create mass outreach on important economic, environmental and social agendas.

And how about BT? How is leadership being expressed in your company?

Well, we are on a journey. We have a long legacy of leadership and an ongoing ambition to be a sustainability leader. When I joined BT, the first thing I did was ask what our leadership might look like – what’s our potential? One of the answers to that question can be found in our Better Future platform, which creates a space for our commitments and passion.

One exciting example of Better Future is Net Good, where we have taken responsibility for our value chain but have also begun to act on the massive opportunity to create value in carbon reduction with our customers. Further, we have made this an open source methodology to encourage others to join us on this journey.

Digital inclusion is also a massive opportunity for BT to make a difference both internationally and here in the UK. When people get connected in favelas, slums or shanty towns there is a transformational impact on their lives. People are so remarkably resourceful and able to change their lives for the better if they are given the opportunity. We can see this vividly in Africa where the adoption of mobile technology has been faster than anyone predicted.

In the UK, 6.4 million people are still offline. Over one in three of these people are in social housing and large percentages of them are unemployed youth or people with disabilities.  We need to find ways to empower them in any way we can and this goes beyond access to technology. We need to see the bigger picture and understand drivers of behaviour change and create an enabled context to foster this change.

For example, let’s take social housing. It is a £4 billion market. We have spent time examining the barriers of this market and looking beyond the transaction costs. We know it takes 4-5 years to get people online, empowered and help them secure the opportunities they want. This requires an ecosystem of services to understand where people are at and help them move forward in a new model that is about creating value rather than cost-centric model. This is how we get scale. 

Does this require partnership, given the scale of change you have outlined?

Yes, all of this requires partnership with civil society, government and the community. Our Chief Executive, Gavin Patterson, has enabled us to be better partners by integrating sustainability into BT’s corporate purpose. This has moved us from a company that takes sustainability seriously to one that has sustainability as core to who we are.

This is a fantastic evolution. It allows me to latch on to our corporate purpose as an organising idea to drive social and environmental progress in everything we do. From ensuring there is purposeful content on our TV channels to leveraging our technology for good.

Purpose gives us the ability to think about everything we do in the business. Every decision about capital – is it connected to making a better world? When we lobby on policy – are we lobbying for self interest or collective good? This is an opportunity to drive this across our entire organisation. It offers us a reason to get up in the morning!

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