How Students Can Move Environmental Issues Higher On The CEO Priority List

My research team’s charter here at Forrester is to “Predict and quantify growth and disruption in the tech industry.” That means we’re always on the lookout for the next big thing(s), whether that’s technology, economic, or business trends that will change the direction of the industry’s fortunes. So we spend a lot of time on primary research, understanding the requirements and priorities of key business technology constituencies like IT organizations, business leaders, and employees within businesses large and small.

And many of our clients in the tech industry do the same. I recently spent some time with Saul Berman and Ragna Bell from IBM’s Global Business Services team, which just completed its bi-annual Global CEO Study. It’s an impressive piece of research, with interviews of more than 1,500 CEOs from around the world about their challenges, goals, and values. One prominent takeaway for readers of this blog: sustainability and environmental concerns are NOT gaining ground on the priority list of global CEOs. Take a look at Figure 1: “environmental issues” are stuck in 7th place on the list of the most important external factors impacting the CEOs’ organizations over the next 3 years. So while we in the sustainability community think we’re making headway in corporate boardrooms, this data doesn't show much progress over the last six years.

But another part of the IBM study does illuminate a more optimistic finding for the future: university students, surveyed in parallel with the CEO study, rate environmental issues much higher than do the CEOs (see Figure 2 below). Environment jumps from 7th to 4th when the respondents are students instead of CEOs. And when asked about the proposition that “scarcity of resources will impact organizations to a large extent,” 65% of students said "Yes," compared with just 29% of the CEOs.

So how quickly can we get these incumbent CEOs out of the way, and get some younger blood into the executive suite? Not very quickly, I’m betting. But there’s another way; look back at Figure 1. First on the list of external impacts is “Market factors.” If the students are serious about their environmental commitment, they will demand it from the companies they do business with. And fourth on the CEO’s priorities is “people skills.” In the battle for new talent, like university recruiting, companies that have clear commitments to sustainable business practices will win out over those that do not. Between being prospective customers and prospective employees, students have multiple, albeit indirect, opportunities to influence the policies and programs of even the largest corporations. And when it comes to predicting the future, I will bet on the students’ attitudes and priorities every time.