A Conversation with with Lucie Bourgeois from Umalia | Brand Citizenship For the Benefit of All
So much has been said and written about solidarity and corporate engagement during crisis situations like the one we are experiencing currently. How do we ensure that these good intentions become lasting realities?
Pierre Léonard, Senior Partner at BrandBourg, talks to Lucie Bourgeois, President and Founder of Umalia, a firm specializing in societal engagement and focused on the impact that organizations can have in their communities.
Lucie Bourgeois, President of Umalia
PL: The health crisis we are experiencing has shed more light than ever before on the community and social commitment of organizations. Do you think this is a lasting movement or a passing phenomenon?
I believe that, fundamentally, society has changed a lot in the last 3-4 years on this subject, and that the health crisis has allowed this trend to accelerate and express itself more concretely than ever. While we were more and more in agreement before that social and environmental issues are becoming increasingly critical for organizations and for us, as human beings, the health crisis has shown that the urgency to act is not theoretical. It isn't something to consider for the future, it's about today... or even yesterday.
It has also allowed us to see that change is possible. Not only in small doses, not only at the personal level, but at the organizational and societal level as well.
We have seen partnerships arise for the common good, such as these soap companies that have collaborated with distilleries to make disinfectant gel. We have seen businesses turn around to meet an urgent need for masks.
We are currently at a crossroads. Although these changes were born out of a societal issue, or even if they arose out of an interest in profiting from this issue, this doesn't mean that this movement won't continue on its own. Traces will be left behind and needs will have been created, and this is a positive.
However, it will be important for these companies to embed this commitment within their strategy, their business model and their corporate values.
Today, organizations, whether they have turned around or not, have a great opportunity to question their purpose, to better understand how they contribute to society and to anchor this societal mission concretely within their structures in order to achieve the desired impact both for themselves and for society.
PL: Already, at the turn of the financial crisis of 2008, the idea that companies could no longer ignore the communities in which they operate in order to prosper had gained ground (the 1% movement, the advent of B Corp, the Shared Value documented in the Harvard Business Review…). Do you believe that this idea will be dominant one day and that we will experience a form of “conscious capitalism”? Or, as many believe, is this a sort of utopia or, worse, a way for some to clear their conscience when it suits them?
I do believe that this approach will be dominant. We have seen a certain evolution for several years and this is no longer limited to the great thinkers of society or to a fringe of society.
More and more leaders, from all spheres, are not only aligning their speeches with this societal commitment, whether by talking about corporate social responsibility, sustainable development, purpose, ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria, etc., they are also making concrete decisions about their business model. Whether it is by choosing to align their practices with sustainable development, by engaging better – and more strategically – with the communities around them, by managing their organization in a more humane, inclusive and equitable manner, or by implementing more transparent and responsible governance, they are taking concrete action one step at a time.
We see that not only are companies taking action, but their stakeholders, too, have raised their expectations of their business partners. Employees demand more from their employer; consumers want to make sure their purchases meet certain values. Even more significant, investors are increasingly demanding that companies meet certain ESG criteria before investing.
The environment in which we operate has changed and everyone realizes it. The risks of not considering these new things are too great for organizations not to recognize them and I think this movement will continue to grow over the next few years.
PL: Beyond these crises, what do you think is causing this awareness among executives and entrepreneurs?
More than ever, we live in an interconnected world. Social networks and the media put us in touch with each other on a daily basis. This allows information to flow more freely than ever.
We also know that social inequalities continue to emerge and the wealth gap continues to grow at a faster rate than ever. The planet is suffering and our biodiversity is seriously compromised. While barely five years ago, we heard about climate change and could see the impacts in other countries, we are now experiencing it at home.
It's this proximity to events and issues that helps to further mobilize citizens and leaders around social and environmental issues. As a result, it also changes the expectations of all stakeholders towards companies.
In addition, rising generations are more than ever challenged by these issues. They saw their parents and grandparents make decisions that today impact their own future. They understand that they can no longer act as before. And these new generations have expectations of their employer. If and when they become leaders, they will do things differently.
In a climate of skilled labour shortage, as we have experienced in recent years, these elements have further accentuated this awareness.
PL: Hasn't this idea of sharing the wealth always coexisted through the cooperative movement and mutual insurance companies, among others? What is the difference today?
Of course, this idea of sharing wealth has always existed, whether through cooperative movements, mutual insurance companies or even philanthropic practices set forth by the majority of organizations.
The difference today is that we realize, more than ever, that it is up to all of us to build this world of tomorrow. Governments no longer have the means to solve social and environmental problems, which have become too far-reaching and too complex to be solved by a single actor or a single segment of society. Ditto for non-governmental organizations and foundations.
Companies, for their part, report total annual revenues in excess of five times the expenses of these other actors in several countries, hence the possibility for them to contribute to this sharing of wealth. What is more, when they do, they realize the resulting benefit not only for society, but for themselves as an organization.
PL: Do you think that societal commitment aligns well with corporate profitability and productivity obligations? Why?
Umalia was built on the firm belief that profit and societal mission can and must go hand in hand.
Demonstrating a societal commitment means, first of all, recognizing the role and place we occupy in society and understanding our purpose and how we contribute to this society in which we operate.
Inevitably, when a company makes these observations, it also realizes the impact it has on its employees, its stakeholders, on communities and on the planet. By being part of a long-term approach aimed at improving these aspects, it automatically innovates; it seeks better ways of doing things to maximize its positive impact.
All this cannot happen without considering profitability. A long-term vision of society inevitably forces the company to position itself in the medium to long term. To survive and be sustainable, it must be profitable.
Engaging in such reflections within companies nourishes employees, stimulates them to seek innovative and effective solutions from all points of view, respecting social and environmental elements and ensuring the profitability (business case) of suggested solutions. These employees understand that beyond a job, they contribute to a goal greater than themselves and thus demonstrate superior commitment and loyalty, enabling greater productivity, happier customers and ultimately better profits.
To reach its full potential, the company must not “combine social and environmental aspects” but rather use these as anchors, to give meaning to its vision and its activities and to create an impact on itself as well as on society.
PL: What connection do you make between the societal commitment of organizations and the employer brand?
Societal commitment is a great vector of meaning for employees. When firmly anchored within the business model, embedded in a vision integrated into the business model, it creates a strong sense of pride and belonging. It allows employees to grow and have a sense of accomplishment, to embrace the values of the company and to understand the impact they are helping to create within the company.
Inevitably, this reflects on the organization's brand and reputation, and helps differentiate it from its competitors. It also allows it to attract and retain “good” talent, those with the best potential for organizational fit, since it's rooted in individual and collective values.
The societal commitment of organizations thus becomes a tool for making the employer brand a reality.
PL: Lucie, you created Umalia eight years ago. Have you observed a change in the discourse and mentality of company managers? What acts as a trigger for executives who use Umalia's services?
Excellent question, Pierre!
Over the past eight years, I have indeed seen a great change in the mindset and discourse of company executives, here, in Quebec, in Canada, but also around the world. While we still have a long way to go, leaders are more and more aware of the importance of this subject and especially of the benefits they can derive from it.
The triggers that drive these leaders to consult with us vary widely. While some seek to evolve their business model and modernize their business practices to be more efficient and meet the expectations of various stakeholders, others come to us with a deep desire to better contribute to their communities and to leave a legacy behind, acknowledging the great wealth they have received and thus wanting to give back.
For others, it's about changing things, responding to a societal issue, alone or with some of their partners. They realize that they can contribute and that with the collaboration of other actors they can improve society by using all their resources. Some also realize that these actions can help increase their competitiveness and differentiation and even their profits.
Finally, others consult us in order to respond to a reputation issue that has led them to question their business practices and wonder how to evolve towards more responsible and sustainable practices.
Whether it is for reasons of the head, the heart or the soul (their purpose), we know one thing: societal commitment is a formidable lever for companies and it takes place one step at a time, depending on what point the company has reached in this matter.
PL: On a more personal level, what prompted you to make the jump from being a vice president of a large international company to starting your own business?
Actually, I myself have experienced the call of my own purpose. I needed meaning mid-career and I badly needed to bring my purpose to life. Having worked for 20 years in large groups and having led large organizational transformations, while serving on numerous boards of non-profit organizations, I understood early how much a company could engage socially and the benefits it could derive from doing so.
I used my expertise in strategic planning, change management, corporate social responsibility and human resources management to anchor and build this business. Umalia materialized my vision where each company becomes aware of the role and place it holds within society and understands how societal engagement can be a vector of development for itself and for society.
Wanting this vision to live beyond me, I founded Umalia so that people and an entire ecosystem would come together around this vision, align with it and commit to making it real. I believed from the start that I could multiply my personal impact if I succeeded in influencing not only the company where I worked but a multitude of companies and organizations bygiving them the means to combine profit and societal commitment.