Business and Markets

Leaning into Partnership at a Time of Transformation

April 30, 2024  • Business and Society Program

The darkest hours of the pandemic offer a hopeful lesson for leaders tackling challenges today like climate change: rapid innovation can be possible through partnership. In developing the COVID-19 vaccine at “warp speed” in 2020–21, pharmaceutical companies abandoned the premise that competition trumps cooperation. From cooperative efforts to mine data from trials, to utilizing excess production capacity from one company to pick up the pace of production and distribution at another, the major players prioritized partnership and the public interest. Business partnerships already play a role in fighting the climate crisis: the Environmental Partnership within the American Petroleum Institute is one such example; McDonald’s work engaging the full ecosystem of its suppliers to lower its carbon footprint is another. 

How common are such partnerships, and what will it take for them to rise to the scale of today’s numerous global challenges?

Rob Coviello, Linda Hill, Judy Samuelson, and Lucy Parker

To answer this question, the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society Program and the Brunswick Strategy Group convened “Leaning into Partnership at a Time of Change” on April 16th in New York City. Lucy Parker of the Brunswick Group left no doubt about how rare such partnerships remain in her opening remarks: “The theme of partnership and what makes partnerships work is the leading edge of business today. This is not business as usual today, this is how business will be.” The panel discussion Aspen’s Judy Samuelson moderated brought in two voices on the leading edge of business today: Rob Coviello, Chief Sustainability Officer at Bunge, and Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill.

In different ways, both Coviello and Hill explored what enables the success of companies on this leading edge of business today. Hill drew from her book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation to distill a formula for the “ABCs” of what a leader should be: “Architect, Bridger and a Catalyst.” For partnership, the role of “bridger” is key, as Hill explained: “You cannot innovate at scale without partners—you need leaders who can build bridges to partners outside the boundaries of your own organization.”

Coviello stressed the rising need for collaboration both inside and outside of companies, driven by existential threats like climate change. “The walls between business and government, between E, S, and G are breaking down.” Such partnerships bring complexities so companies like Bunge are adding capabilities. “We found we needed a sustainability accountant, which didn’t exist before. We had to be thoughtful about how that role would fit in the organization.”

Hill was quick to emphasize that success on the leading edge of business requires more than just a re-think of the org chart. “When we look at when these things work, what we see is, yes you have to get the governance right, but if you don’t get the social fabric right, it doesn’t work. Governance doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have that social dynamic.” 

The key to the social dynamic? A shared sense of purpose that can inspire employees. “Leading innovation is not about saying ‘I have a vision, follow me,” said Hill. Instead, it’s about “creating an environment in which people will be willing to co-create the future with you.” 

Ironically, this sense of purpose doesn’t have to be as lofty as saving the world in order to save the world: “What the person who was leading the COVID Pfizer development was hired to do was in fact build digital transformation. He didn’t know that COVID was going to happen was rather to build a digital supply chain—and having built up those skills the system delivered on the needs of COVID vaccine deployment,” said Hill. Coviello emphasized that Bunge’s partnerships to fight deforestation were not driven solely by doing what’s right for the planet. They reflect the company’s core purpose of sustainably providing food for a growing global population. 

In the end, taking the partnership approach to innovation from the leading edge of business toward the mainstream may require a rethink of the talent pipeline. “Boards are not well equipped for selecting CEOs good at this work. CEOs are still selected for vision… but a good leader needs to leave space for others’ vision,” said Hill. What should boards look for in selecting CEOs? Those who “come from a zig-zag career, a background broad enough to successfully engage different partners and parts of the business—to speak their languages.” Coviello added that the skillset to look for in potential leaders of partnerships is a unique one: “Leaders need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” Indeed. Existential risks from COVID to climate change demand nothing less.