A New Kind of Leadership: Transformation for a sustainable future

Alexandra Palt is Executive Vice-President, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at L’Oréal, a CEMS Corporate Partner. She is driving the organisation’s efforts to accelerate inclusion and sustainability across its global ecosystem. As the world prepares for the COP 26, CEMS sat down with Alexandra to explore the imperative for change – and the skills needed to get there.

L’Oréal has committed to fully transforming its business model in line with planetary boundaries – the urgent need to mitigate climate change, perhaps chief among these. What is the motivation behind this transformation?

I think there’s a better question to be asked here, and that is: how could we not transform? 

We are facing a multitude of threats: from climate change to the loss of biodiversity: floods; fires; and extreme weather. As a global population, every country, state, city and organisation in our world is living beyond our planetary boundaries right now. And the threats we face are not about saving the planet or protecting endangered species at this point. The threats we face are existential. All signs are pointing to a mass extinction – the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth. That means we have an urgent need to secure and sustain a safe operating space for the human species, for our societies and economies.

Science tells us that for us, a safe operating space entails limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees; it entails managing the loss of biodiversity as well as land occupancy; and it means making the shift to the circular economy. The science is unequivocal and the message is clear. 


What does that mean for L’Oréal in terms of concrete measures you are committing to as an organisation?

We have said that by 2025, all of our sites will be carbon neutral. That means factories, distribution centres, administrative sites and research and innovation spaces. By 2030 we have committed to using only 100% recycled plastics and 95% of our ingredients in formula will be biobased, derived from abundant minerals or from circular processes, thanks to a green sciences approach.


You have outlined very ambitious goals for your organisation and business model transformation. Will this also have implications for the kind of talent you will be looking to recruit as you go forward?

I’d say that going forward we are going to need new kinds of leaders. 

In the past, leaders were expected to look inside the organisation in order to maximise profit. But this has been changing over the last 25 years or so. Increasingly, companies are expanding their focus; thinking more about their external stakeholder ecosystems. We’ve seen the rise of this kind of tripartite force that connects governments, businesses and civil societies or communities. And it’s still evolving. The people we recruit today feel deeply allied to society. They very much see themselves as accountable members of the broader community, and as defenders of the environment. Meanwhile, communities and society are finding new ways to mobilise and organise themselves. For businesses, this translates into a greater obligation to engage with the outside world –with governments, society and communities, including those who are experiencing hardship or have limited resources. We are expected to play our role as one of the multiple actors charged with designing and shaping the future. Inevitably, this means that the competences and skills we need have to change.


Change in what way?

It’s not enough now to be able to draw up a commercial strategy or make sense of a P&L. Today it’s also about how you interact with the world around you; with the communities, organisations and public authorities, with nature and with the planet. 

Given the complexity of the challenges we face, there are no perfect solutions available to us. That means that our future leaders have to be comfortable trying out different approaches, accepting they are imperfect and experiencing failure. They need to have courage and the capacity to innovate and keep driving change.

They also need to be able to drive dialogue with external stakeholders to understand what is going on in the broader context. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to know how to listen, how to get inspired and how to cooperate, whether that cooperation is with the industry, with competitors or with NGOs or communities on the ground. They will need to be skilled collaborators.


Of course, CEMS schools and universities have a core role in helping young people build future-facing skills. What message do you have for us as educators of tomorrow’s leaders?

I think that CEMS and education systems in general have a responsibility to help people discover who they are and what they want

We don’t need another generation of people who decide at 40 or 45 that they need to give purpose to their lives. Today’s young people already know that they want purpose. What we need to give them is the self-knowledge or insights to determine where they can be most useful – where they can bring the most to the table. 

Not everyone can be the founder of an NGO or work in social entrepreneurship. We need to help young people to do the work on themselves to understand how they can lead change – how to position themselves to lead new models to sustain our future in the 21st century. And I feel that this is not something that we are teaching enough in our systems.


Is there also an onus on young people themselves to do this kind of introspection and determine where they can bring most value?

What I would say to young people is this: wherever you are in the value chain, in a company, in society, you can bring purposeful, useful work to the table. You can have impact, whatever your position. 

In my own role and my experience, I’ve worked with classical business executives who have managed to build sustainability into the work that they do and sparked really significant innovations. I know HR managers who have touched hundreds of lives by choosing to integrate underprivileged communities; and purchasing officers who shifted to inclusive sourcing projects. Wherever you are, you have the potential to bring purpose and value in so many ways. And I think it’s important to understand that. 

Just as important is the need to know yourself. 

When you first join a company, the way that you lead change won’t necessarily be through your own actions, which are likely to be limited or imperfect. You will lead change by tapping into the personal strengths that you know you have – and then work with others who bring their complementary strengths to the table to get change done.

If you know you are a strategist or a team leader, you won’t be looking to go into more technical work. But you will need to know how to work with and influence the technical leads and scientists to make change happen. Similarly, if you are a gifted project manager, you will pivot to the coordination aspects of the work. If you’re someone with a strong vision, you need to develop the skills and the courage to share that vision. And if you’re more of a scientist, then you’re going to need to focus on building that expertise. 

Sometimes young people believe that they have to follow one specific path or career trajectory. A far better approach for your career and your life is to truly know your own strengths, capabilities and interests, as well as your weaknesses.


Learn more about career opportunities at L’Oréal



To learn more about Sustainable Development at L'Oréal from Alexandra Palt:

The London School of Economics and Political Science Event: What Does Responsible Business Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World?

A podcast of this event is available to download from What Does Responsible Business Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World?

A video of this event is available to watch at What Does Responsible Business Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World?