The activist CEO: a new breed of corporate leader29 July 2014


July 2014

Sarah Nicholas

As global agribusiness and Gong client Olam International enters its 25th anniversary this month, one might expect much congratulatory back patting from Sunny Verghese, the group CEO and founder. Rather than resting on any laurels, however, Sunny has seized the opportunity to reflect on how much more there is still to be done and the place in the global ecosystem that Olam could – and should – now take.

Agitating for change from the top down is fast infiltrating the ranks across sectors and industries, and stirring up a new breed of corporate leader: the activist CEO. The successful business leaders of this brave new age, Sunny observes, are unafraid of ‘taking on issues that are bigger than themselves and their own sphere of influence.’

Gone are the times when a business leader had to set up a foundation in order to use their influence for positive impact around the world (Mo Ibrahim and Bill Gates spring to mind) – there is a growing conviction that the businesses themselves can do good. Unilever’s Paul Polman has long been leading the activist pack for systems change beyond the factory gate among governments, suppliers and consumers. At the same time, sustainability initiatives now sit at the heart of major companies such as Marks and Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ and SAB Miller’s ‘Prosper’.

Moves like these indicate that the sustainability-driven C-suite cohort, though small, is growing. And why should that be a surprise? As Sunny recognised in his blog piece, today’s successful business leader necessarily confronts inconvenient truths like climate change and dwindling natural resources: if he or she is to weather the challenges of today’s world, it is the only thing to do.