How to enact stewardship effectively

Written by
Andr?? Nijhof

15 Jan 2016

15 Jan 2016 • by Andr?? Nijhof

Leaders who recognise and embrace this connection are acting within the principles of stewardship and excel, whereas those who choose to ignore this connection risk corporate scandal, demotivated employees and lack trust. In order to create change, business schools – the institutions responsible for developing future leaders – should lead the way.

What does it mean to enact stewardship?

One of the companies hit by the 9/11 attacks was a real estate broker located in a World Trade Centre tower. In the hours following the attacks the manager was calling colleagues and was back in business the day after. Were these the actions of a manager who didn’t want to lose a day of income, even under such severe conditions? Or was this a manager who, understanding that many of his clients were located in the WTC tower wanted to minimise their worries about restarting so they could concentrate on supporting injured employees and the relatives of those lost? Although the actions and results are the same, the intention behind them makes all the difference. This is what stewardship is about - capturing our sense of responsibility for all the ways we’re connected, and determining how we choose to act as a result.

By making stewardship the starting point in all decision-making, leaders can ensure they’re working not only for their own or their organisation’s interest but for the interests of all other stakeholders, whilst simultaneously strengthening employee engagement and encouraging customer loyalty. A good example is Interface – the global leader in manufacturing carpet tiles. In 1994 the CEO expressed his dedication to climb 'Mount Sustainability' – a metaphor to express the company’s commitment to producing carpet tiles without leaving a negative footprint on the environment. Every year the company reported its progress, but also reported its failures and areas where it wished to increase efforts. These actions created strong connections with suppliers and clients, and transformed the market by compelling stakeholders and competitors to take a stance. This gradual movement towards better practice is visible in every sector once one company is brave enough to hold itself and its industry to account.

Why should organisations foster stewardship in employees?

Every organisation has huge potential to gain from the societal intelligence of its employees, however this requires an organisational culture that fosters such reflections. Research by Professor Amy Wrzesniewski reveals employees choose to view their work in any of three ways; they might view it as a ‘job’ with the paycheck as the reward, as a ‘career’ to advance themselves, or as a ‘calling’ because it is fulfilling, contributes to the greater good and adds meaning to their lives. Promoting stewardship encourages employees to explore the meaning of their actions, stimulating their perspective of work as a calling and enhancing their work ethic.

For companies founded from a societal purpose, such encouragement comes naturally. However for the majority ‘business as usual’ means a culture oriented towards profit and growth without sincere attention to the wider consequences. In these organisations, employees who go against the grain become labelled as ‘radicals’ or ‘organisational deviants’. Though a more challenging path to take, it remains a very impactful one.

Stewardship requires a strong commitment to positively contribute to society along with the understanding that even the biggest organisations cannot do this alone.

Companies like Unilever showed this humility by publishing a list of key challenges the company sought help with in realising their Sustainable Living Plan. Instead of relying solely on their R&D department, Unilever recognised the need to look externally for solutions and knew that if they could find them in a timely fashion and get partnerships in place, they’d stand a far better chance of delivering results.

How can business schools encourage stewardship?

For more organisations to follow Unilever and Interface’s example, business leaders need to have a better appreciation for how their decisions influence others. Business schools – the institutions responsible for shaping future leaders – must overcome the deep-rooted obstacles preventing stewardship becoming a principle of education.

An MBA is historically perceived as the ticket to golden paychecks and career opportunities – prompting students to perceive work as a ‘job’ or ‘career’, rather than a ‘calling’. To counter this, institutions should do their utmost to provide the skills, knowledge and confidence for students to act for the greater good.

At Nyenrode we’re still figuring out how to this, but our core values of leadership, entrepreneurship and stewardship ensures our programmes encourage students to reflect on the defining moments of their lives, employs uncommon teaching methods to stimulate deep dialogues and challenges assumptions. But, like Unilever, we realise we cannot inspire real change by acting alone, and endeavour to work with and learn from more advanced business schools in this respect all around the world, from Presidio in the US, to Ashridge Business School in the UK and Upeace in Costa Rica.