Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.
IF HAD I TOLD you in 2019 that an upcoming global pandemic would have devastating effects on health, lifestyles, and businesses, would you have been able to foresee the all-encompassing disruption? It’s been a very tough time for businesses. Our own research tells us that when firms collapse due to an unexpected shock like COVID-19, only 80 percent of business that exit the market are replaced after five years.
At Trinity Business School in Dublin, Ireland, we knew we had a responsibility to help businesses that were struggling because of the pandemic. We discovered that we could help them not only survive, but perhaps come back better and stronger than ever before. At the same time, we learned that we could help them rebuild their businesses in ways that were more environmentally sustainable.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Our journey toward a sustainable focus began many years ago. When I joined Trinity Business School as dean in 2015, the university wanted to turn it into a world-class business school. Among the university’s goals were to grow the size of the school by two-and-a-half times and to self-finance a cutting-edge new building that would cost €80 million (approximately 94 million USD).
To transform the institution, I needed to get insights into the heart and soul of all the members of the school’s community. If I could ascertain what motivated them, I would have a better chance of leading the design of an inspirational strategy. I began by having one-on-one coffees with as many people as possible—outside stakeholders as well as every employee across both academic and professional staff.
After three months, we had identified the actual and aspirational DNA of Trinity Business School. We laid out ethical and sustainable standards for the school and articulated values such as “putting in more than you take out.” We embraced a trusting managerial approach that gave people ownership of and responsibility for their own projects; we delivered a strategy that not only achieved the mission of the university, but also gave everyone a sense of purpose.
Identifying our DNA helped create a sense of community that galvanized the school and triggered a range of transformative innovations. For one thing, we focused on increasing the diversity among both students and faculty. We developed a “Pathways to Business Programme” to help more people from disadvantaged backgrounds become students at Trinity Business School. We also joined the 30% Club, a global campaign aimed at increasing gender diversity at board and senior management levels, and we have been recognized as one of the top five business schools in the world for student and faculty gender diversity.
IDENTIFYING OUR DNA GALVANIZED THE SCHOOL AND TRIGGERED A RANGE OF TRANSFORMATIVE INNOVATIONS.
Just as important, we began to emphasize sustainability in our offerings and our actions. We revamped our programs to prioritize learning in the areas of ethics, corporate social responsibility, and concern for climate change. We began our journey toward a carbon-neutral education by offsetting carbon emissions from our air travel, adopting a “veggie first” food policy, and banning plastic bottles in the school. Our new eco-friendly building includes a 70-square-meter (753-square-foot) “living wall” of flowering plants that attract a range of pollinators.
When the virus struck, we saw the notion of cross-pollination as a metaphor for the importance of tending to the many stakeholders of our community. We knew that we needed to water and support our entire ecosystem.
WHAT WE’RE DOING
One of the first things that happened when the world went into lockdown was that environmental pollution was drastically reduced—and yet, workers still remained surprisingly productive. International projects continued to be propelled forward even when no one traveled to meetings. We had inadvertently discovered some of the keys to solving the climate change emergency: Reduce the need to commute to work every day. Reduce the need for air travel. Combat consumerism by placing more importance on social well-being and less on the accumulation of possessions, particularly fad products that will become prematurely obsolete.
We felt that, as an institution, we must do what we could to educate leaders to build a more sustainable future after the pandemic. We want to help businesses recover in a way that is both financially and environmentally sustaining, without bringing back the old economy with all of its negative impacts. To that end, we have designed a number of specially tailored open online programs, as well as executive education programs designed to help business leaders recover from the impact of the pandemic.
More ambitiously, we launched free online workshops in a series titled “Reboot and Reignite Business: Workshops to Help Shape Up Business in the New Environment.” In the 75-minute workshops, participants explored key issues facing businesses in a post-pandemic economy, identifying and discussing solutions and response frameworks. Finally, they joined breakout sessions where they carried out exercises and shared their conclusions with the group.
WE FELT THAT, AS AN INSTITUTION, WE MUST DO WHAT WE COULD TO EDUCATE LEADERS TO BUILD A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE AFTER THE PANDEMIC.
Among the topics covered were managing cash flow, thriving in an economic downturn, and shaping digital strategies. The focus of these programs was on creating a sustainable recovery, taking into account ethical considerations such as tackling the climate emergency and creating an inclusive society. By emphasizing recovery and growth, the sessions provided participants with a checklist approach to strategic thinking.
To facilitate the workshops and programs, we drew on our wide community—which includes professors, senior executives, and entrepreneurs from all over the globe. Together, they generously shared both short-term and long-term resilience strategies to help businesses not only survive, but successfully compete in the post COVID-19 environment. Because all the speakers were volunteering their time, we were able to provide these workshops completely free to participants.
We also secured speakers from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), which enthusiastically partnered with us on the sessions. Because the IBEC includes both multinational and indigenous members, their input insured the relevance of our workshops for companies all over the world. Their insights blended well with the Trinity Business School’s own international perspective.
WHERE WE’RE GOING
Why are we so keen to help set businesses on a more sustainable path? COVID-19 has changed the economic, political, and social landscape, and we want to make sure businesses are aligned with the opportunities and threats that lie ahead. We also want to share Trinity Business School’s expertise and sustainable values to help build businesses that are both more inclusive and less likely to exacerbate inequality.
By coming together, we can create a future economy that works for our businesses—and our planet too. Beyond political rhetoric, business schools and their students are likely to be the ones who provide the fighting spirit for many companies to make it along the bumpy road toward a sustainable, post-COVID world.
Andrew Burke is Dean and Chair of Business Studies at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.