Sue Bonney: My Life on Purpose
Sue Bonney is the former Vice Chair and Head of ESG at KPMG UK. She worked at KPMG for 37 years, during which time she was pioneering in her quest to put responsible business at the heart of a fairer and more sustainable world. She was also governor of a high school from 2013 to 2018, including three years as Chair, and has been a non-executive director of The Forward Institute, a non-profit Institute focused on responsible leadership through organisation and systems change, for nearly eight years.
What does purpose mean to you?
I’ve been lucky – I’ve had a really happy life: I’ve been loved; I’ve lived in a safe environment; I’ve been given opportunities. My basic philosophy in life is never taking that for granted, and wanting the same for other people – in whatever form that may take.
You worked at KPMG for decades, and had the position of Head of ESG. What did you learn in that time about the state of business today, and what’s your hope for what it can be?
I trained as a chartered accountant in the eighties, and over the years worked with some of the biggest organisations in the country. About ten years ago, I was given the opportunity at KPMG to set up a program for senior leaders from a range of client backgrounds. We picked people just below executive board level and said: “okay, you think you’re about to step up to the next senior role, but look at these megatrends, and these disruptors impacting you. Will your business even exist in two years’ time? And how can you be an agent for change now to create the sort of organisation you would want to lead?” It was inspiring seeing them rise to the challenge.
You can have an apocalyptic view of business, which says that it is driving greater inequality – ruthlessly stripping out short term profits; ever-increasing the divide between CEO earnings and the average employee; and so on. But I see loads of really great examples where people are doing things differently: they’re embracing the ESG agenda; they’re working more collaboratively; and they’re thinking not just about their shareholders but their other stakeholders too.
I think the terminology ‘ESG’ is a bit of a blessing and a curse. It’s been good because it grabbed the attention of the financial community, and moved it from being something that could be thought of as soft and fluffy to something that’s got hard metrics and capital flows behind it. But it can become a checkbox: “we’ve done these things, and now we’re done.” People are taking it seriously now in a way that they weren’t before, but ESG needs to speak to hearts and minds.
“You can have an apocalyptic view of business, which says that it is driving greater inequality – ruthlessly stripping out short term profits; ever-increasing the divide between CEO earnings and the average employee; and so on. But I see loads of really great examples where people are doing things differently.”
What is your idea of professional fulfillment?
An organisation is just a collection of people, but sometimes the language of business sets it apart from society. For me, fulfilment is when business is an integral part of a cohesive society, and it’s contributing to it in a positive way.
What is the hardest part about trying to be purposeful?
One of the things I dread is appearing pious. Because I’m not. I have my sins like everybody else. I think there’s a big difference between being purposeful without being preachy. But there’s a fine line. A lot of these decisions are nuanced, and being thoughtful about that is part of being purposeful.
What causes are you really passionate about?
Social mobility. A few years back, I became a governor in a secondary school in the area where I was born. I was so shocked by the lack of opportunities there.
When we went into lockdown, the majority of the kids didn’t have access to a laptop, and had to come into school to work. And it continues all the way up, because these kids have less access to work experience, because they don’t know people who have good jobs. I look at the school that I went to and the opportunities I had – just five miles away from this school – and it’s just not fair.
When was a time that you felt like giving up?
In my last few years at KPMG, I spearheaded development of our work on ESG because I believed it was so important to us as an organisation and what we do with our clients. I felt the firm and our brand gave us permission to have conversations with people that you wouldn’t otherwise get to talk to.
But eventually, I decided to do that work outside a big organisation. We’re in an environment today that’s changing all the time and so volatile. The agenda’s moving so fast, and I think big organisations are struggling to adapt fast enough.
“An organisation is just a collection of people, but sometimes the language of business sets it apart from society.”
What leader inspires you?
Paul Polman, the ex-CEO of Unilever. When you hear him speak, he’s not preachy. He’s so matter of fact. It’s just: “if you do this, this will be the consequence, and why would you do that?” I think he’s a person who genuinely believes in business as a power for good and puts his money where his mouth is.
What are the qualities you admire in someone?
Authenticity, passion, and respect. Respect takes you so far in leadership. It helps with inclusion and diversity because you respect difference, and it helps with hierarchies, because mutual respect allows you to operate in a different way.
What do you want to be remembered for?
For making a bit of a difference. When I left KPMG, people said things like, “you won’t remember this, but you were the first person that was brave enough to take me out to a client with you” or “you helped me prep for my director panel and it was transformational.”
In a way, I’d like to be remembered for things that I don’t even remember doing, I just did them because they were the right thing to do.