A degree of responsibility

A masters programme in sustainability has given the managers of an NGO an holistic appreciation of the business

There is much talk at business school these days of a new generation of graduates who, in the course of their programme, are persuaded to eschew the conventional career path of investment banking in favour of saving the planet and working in NGOs.

But a decade or so ago, it was their deep concerns about the planet that drove Paul Dickinson and Paul Simpson to business school.

Mr Dickinson is articulate and strident on the topic. “It’s my belief that some corporations have stopped governments acting on climate change,” he says. “What corporations are doing is stopping governments from ruling the world without taking responsibility themselves.”

Mr Simpson recalls the day he first met Mr Dickinson in June 1999 at a conference on sustainable business in the Netherlands. Mr Dickinson was already formulating plans for the Carbon Disclosure Project, which works on behalf of shareholders to persuade the world’s largest corporations to measure and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, climate change risk and water strategies. “What gets measured gets managed,” he asserts.

He tried to persuade Mr Simpson to join the project and in January 2001 Mr Simpson, now chief executive, did just that. “In the beginning we called ourselves a project because we didn’t know how long we’d last,” says Mr Simpson. From just a handful of like-minded employees in a borrowed office in London in 2000, the NGO now employs 90 people, working in 35 countries outside the UK.

When they met, Mr Dickinson, now executive chairman, had already completed a masters degree in sustainability and responsibility at Bath university and quickly persuaded his colleague to enrol on the part-time programme, even though Mr Simpson already had an undergraduate business degree from Cass in London.

The difference in approach between the two degrees was substantial, says Mr Simpson. “What I got through the masters was a much more holistic view of business. It helps me to have a more systematic way of thinking when addressing problems.”

Although in many ways an NGO operates like a traditional business, in others it is quite different, he continues. “We have a very strong management team which is partly because of the length of time we’ve been together but also because being an NGO, we are mission-focused and that is different from ordinary business.

“We have really taken on a task that is going to be there for decades,” continues Mr Simpson. “You get to the point where you think you don’t have an option. The more you study it, the more involved you become.”

In all, five of the senior managers at the CDP have been through the masters programme, which is now taught at Ashridge. Mr Dickinson says this has been helpful in such a fast-growing organisation. “I think there is some shared culture we have picked up from this course. It’s brilliantly constructed. It takes you very clearly through the subject and allows you to form your own view of corporate responsibility.”

The academic underpinning of the CDP also gives credibility. Some 655 institutional investors holding $78tn in assets are signatories. “We represent by far the largest number of signatories in history,” says Mr Dickinson.

It is an argument not lost on the world’s largest corporations. At the last count, 3,700 companies reported their data to the CDP, including 91 per cent of Europe’s biggest 300 companies and 67 per cent of those questioned in Brazil. The project is intent on getting cities to report their carbon use and last year 70 per cent of the world’s top 60 cities reported to CDP.

Mr Dickinson is a convert to tertiary education. He has started a practice-based doctoral degree at Ashridge, developing the theory behind the practice of his work.

“I am studying systems for citizens as investors and consumers to express their concerns on climate change, so the ultimate bosses of companies – us – effectively communicate the need to change to a low carbon economy.”

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