Doing business better
12 May 2021 at 2:43 pm
As the executive director of the Global Compact Network Australia, Kylie Porter is fighting to mobilise businesses to create a future that is more sustainable for all. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
From a young age, Kylie Porter knew she wanted to make a difference. But it was only when she started working in the corporate sector that she realised how she could have a lasting impact on the world.
She could see the potential of shifting corporate capital and influence towards solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. She is now on a mission to help businesses transform their practices into ones that don’t harm people or the planet.
As the executive director of Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA), Porter leads a team of experts across the fields of business and human rights, the transition to net zero, the sustainable development goals and bribery prevention.
During her tenure, membership of the GCNA has almost doubled and the organisation has been awarded over $1 million in grants and associated funding.
In this week’s Changemaker, Porter talks about setting boundaries and expectations, the piece of advice that’s guided her career, and the hope she has for the future.
How did you end up in the job you’re in now?
I’ve been interested in sustainable development ever since I was a child. I grew up as a child of a diplomat, which meant I travelled around the world a lot. I was fortunate enough to get a very good understanding at a very young age of social issues such as inequality, unfair justice, poverty, and climate change.
I ended up in the business world after I graduated from university, and I realised that this was where the difference can be made. The amount of capital that businesses have is enormous, as is their sphere of influence – on consumers, their internal staff, but also globally in terms of the size of these companies. A lot of companies globally have a revenue that is larger than some small countries’ GDP.
I did a lot of work predominantly in the financial services sector, and then ended up at Save the Children for a couple of years. When I went back into the corporate world I was very much at the stage of asking, “well, what’s next?” I’d done a lot of things in the ESG space, I’d done a lot of reputation and risk work, I’d talked to a lot of different activist organisations and other civil society organisations around understanding where businesses find it more challenging to make an influence, but I felt like I wanted more.
It was very fortuitous that at the time the role for executive director of the Global Compact was available because it balanced my desire to work in the NFP sector with my need to work with businesses to collectively improve how they are approaching some of the world’s most intractable issues.
You deal with solving massive issues in your work. How do you stay grounded when faced with all these big problems?
The most challenging part of my job I would say is identifying the issues where we can make the biggest difference by working with business…and it can be challenging to tell your members that while we want to work on all the important issues, we don’t have capacity for it.
How important is it for you to set personal and professional boundaries?
I have quite a large family, and both my partner and I work full time, but I recognise the importance of the relationship with my children and making sure that I’m available for them. So for me, it’s been about prioritising their needs. So that might mean starting at 9:30am on a Friday so that I can walk the kids to school and then finishing earlier so I can pick them up after school and spend some time with them. But that comes at a price. It does mean working at night quite regularly to make up the time. I’m [not] advocating for everyone to work at night. I definitely don’t have the balance right, I think I’d be foolish to say otherwise, but for me, it’s about prioritising the things that matter most.
What’s a piece of advice that’s guided you throughout your career?
The best piece of advice I’ve been given was don’t let people tell you that you’re outspoken and to make sure that people are aware that you’re opinionated. It’s fine to be a female and be assertive and to get your views across, but do it respectfully.
I remember my first real performance review in the finance sector. I had a female manager at the time who was quite senior… and she told me that some of the feedback she’d had from others in the workplace was that I was coming across as too opinionated or outspoken. And she just told me to never stop doing that, because for every single person who had said that, she had asked them what their response would have been if it was a male doing the same thing, and they had [all] said he would just be being assertive. This was the first time my gender had come into play in my career. It’s always resonated with me that you’ve got to make sure that you get your voice across when it’s appropriate and when it’s backed by facts.
How has working at GCNA changed and influenced your view of the world?
As I said earlier, I’ve always thought that the private sector has one of the biggest influences because of how it can direct capital. And what this job has done is confirmed that belief even more. It’s informed [it] in a way that has also highlighted the challenges for business in doing that. So I guess a good example is that you can have a company that is renowned for having the best human rights practices in the world or a really aggressive approach to decarbonisation, but if the board of that company has someone who is anti-immigration or is a climate denier on it, they can totally flip the company’s strategy. Whilst I think I was always inherently aware of that, [working at GCNA] really has informed my acute awareness of how we need to work with companies better to ensure that directors and executive leadership teams understand this influence in a far more practical sense.
I think the other really big thing is how different the whole world is. We’ve got 69 local networks globally, but what responsible business means for these different countries right now is just so diverse. And that’s been a really great lesson because it’s meant that I’ve been able to learn from a lot of our peers, and vice versa. And so in that respect, I think my outlook on the world has probably become not so doom and gloom. I take solace in the fact that there are these 69 local networks with passionate staff in them who work alongside business to try and change the world for the better.