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Students Work toward Sustainability, Says IBM Study

In a few short years, the millennial generation, sometimes called Generation Y, will make up half of the worldwide workforce. According to a growing body of research, their attitudes, behaviors and leadership styles will be markedly different from previous generations.  Where they will diverge most, according to IBM’s recent global student study, centers around their views of globalization and sustainability.

Since 2004, IBM has published a Global CEO Study every two years to understand and articulate the goals of leaders worldwide.  In 2010, for the first time, IBM supplemented insight from the CEO Study, with a global student study. More than 3600 students responded from more than 40 countries to a detailed questionnaire about global issues and their impact on organizations.

When both CEOs and students were asked the top factors that would impact organizations in the future, students were twice as likely to pick globalization and environmental issues. Their comments made it clear the issues of globalization and sustainability were intertwined. They talked about a sense of shared responsibility for society and the environment. They called for organizations to better balance economic performance and societal/environmental performance and recognized that this would require nothing less than, in the words of one student from France, “a new definition of what wealth means.”

This generation’s experience of globalization is different. They grew up more connected globally – quickly adopting a frenzy of new communications, media and digital technologies ranging from Napster to Facebook, cell phones to iPods.  They see the shocks and the threats of globalization – but are more prone to accept it as an opportunity to expand the prosperity of societies and collaborate on innovative solutions to environmental challenges. Globalization to them was not “diversifying a portfolio,” as one young leader told us, “but an urgent call to action.”

Across every question asked about sustainability and globalization in the study, students stood out from CEOs. While both CEOs and students acknowledged the large impact on organizations sustainability will have, students were passionate about the implications of those concerns – on a personal and organizational level.

For example, students were more keenly sensitive to global competition for energy, water, metals and other resources. In fact, they were more than twice as likely as CEOs to expect major organizational consequences from scarcity of these resources (65 percent compared to 29 percent).

Students asserted a departure from previous generations in how they would focus their careers – with a greater tendency to combine personal development with accountability to society, as one student in Mexico said.  This awareness of a new possibility is reflected in their views on leadership. Students placed a higher emphasis than CEOs on only two leadership qualities – global thinking and a focus on sustainability — both of them core to a shared planet ethos.

Students were 43 percent more likely than CEOs to view global thinking as a top leadership quality. And they were 36 percent more likely to view sustainability as one. A student in Japan commented on the connection between the two characteristics: “Global thinking is a must for leaders, but it must be associated with focus on sustainability and integrity, otherwise businesses will be short lived.”

The next generation faces serious challenges and yet appears poised to face them with optimism and determination. A student in the United States summed up the commitment to a new type of business value for this generation of digital natives: “The emphasis on sustainability will be more present in my career, and others of my generation. We are more aware of the effects of globalization and have taken them in stride, and with that comes the idea of becoming a global citizen, responsible to others and the world.”

Students recognize that driving the kinds of substantive change required will necessitate re-imagining the concept of success at a personal and professional level. For tomorrow’s leaders, developing the skills necessary to transform organizations will require a focus and passion we are beginning to see take root.

Ragna Bell is associate partner IBM Global Business Services and the global lead for Strategy & Change at the IBM Institute for Business Value. Jeff Hittner is Deputy Chair and Director of Research, Corporate Eco Forum.

Jeff Hittner
Jeff Hittner is the corporate social responsibility consulting leader for IBM Global Business Services. IBM’s biennial global CEO study can be found here.
 
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