Why Sustainability Leadership Matters and How to Get It

Happy to share this Greenbiz piece I wrote for Transitioning to Green & the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Why sustainability requires leadership training

Sustainability is now firmly on the radar screen of business. Along with their ongoing focus on economic issues, two-thirds of executives and managers now consider social and environmental issues as significant or very significant concerns. Yet only 10 percent of leaders say they are fully addressing these issues. Those who have been able to embed sustainability into core functions of their companies are reaping significant benefits.

Sustainability is one of those big openings that hold enormous promise. It requires teams to know not only what it means and why it’s important, but also how it can be actualized in a business. And as always, it takes excellent leadership skills to turn good ideas into tangible results.

For every highly-influential leader who may have the clout to put sustainability on the table, it takes a whole team of skillful champions working together to make sustainability a reality.

Throughout my career, and in my role at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, I’ve witnessed what’s possible when business leaders set a powerful agenda and then pull together the teams that get it done. Those game-changing initiatives take commitment, talent, hard work and time.

One problem we face as leaders today is that we developed our leadership talents, and gained business success, in environments that were much more predictable than those our businesses face now. The business challenges surrounding resource constraints, erratic markets, extreme weather, economic volatility and social change have become the new normal described by Andrew Winston in The Big Pivot. These conditions, along with innovations in technology that have interconnected our world, have infused the business landscape with a never-before-seen radical level of transparency. All this has left business leaders with much less control than they would ideally want.

Making sustainability happen — at scale — and with the speed required to reap returns on investment under these conditions, requires business leadership to rethink and remix their skill sets to develop the versatility and agility they need.

Sustainability leadership training

The value to leaders of developing collaborative relationships that are cross-functional and inter-industry cannot be emphasized enough in regard to sustainability. The USCCF and other forward-thinking business-focused organizations have a critically important role to play in moving sustainability forward by providing venues where business leaders can learn what they need to be highly effective in a complex, rapidly changing world. The recent Sustainable Brands Conference is one example of how this can be done. GreenBiz VERGE events are another.

We also see a huge opportunity for a new kind of leadership training: one that gets at the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts of actually running a profitable, socially responsible company, and ensures that business leaders at all levels and key job functions — including operations and production, R&D, marketing and sales, human resources and finance — are equipped with both the “why” and the “how” of sustainability.

We believe that to be successful, leadership must engage enough people so that sustainability practices permeate the organization. That’s the reason our LeaderShip for Sustainability three-day training program aims at causing such breakthroughs as garnering C-suite support for integrating sustainability throughout the entire organization and in every function, or implementing sustainability employee-resource groups and green teams throughout the organization to engage employees at every level and make sustainability goals their own.

We’ve been watching the rise of gamification in business that helps employees discover, learn and practice hard-core business skills (while including the human side) in a low-risk environment, as DeloitteGartner, and others have noted. While it’s still an emerging arena, gamification has huge potential to help people learn and gain insights about making sustainability real in their business. And doing it in days, rather than years.

That’s why we apply a learning model that integrates sustainability concepts and best practices with hands-on experience through gamification that simulates an actual business. We believe this approach models for companies what they can do internally to accelerate learning and to have their leaders gain relevant experience with minimal risk.

We believe that each of us has a role to play in responsibly managing our planet’s resources and making a positive contribution to society, while generating business opportunities and results that benefit many people both locally and across the globe. Many of you have your own experiences to share. Now that you know what we’ve been up to, we’d love to hear what you are doing to champion sustainability.

Great Climate Communications Example: McDonough’s Elegant “Butterfly Revolution”

I’m always on the lookout for great examples and stories of “what works” in climate communications.

I’m interested in writing that not only shares information, but also inspires us to make ourselves, our communities and our world better.

Here’s a darned fine article chock full of ideas for changing how we actively care for all other humans–by caring for Nature.

In this conversation with Cradle to Cradle creator William McDonough, Greenbiz’ Joel Makower tackles a specific way that Nature needs humans, and a concrete plan for doing something about it.

The McDonough Conversations: Why nature needs humans

Joel Makower: You’ve been talking lately about the fact nature needs humans as much as humans need nature. That’s the opposite of what some conservation groups are talking about — that “humans need nature more than nature needs humans.”

Bill McDonough: I’ve been thinking specifically about the collapse of the monarch butterfly. This is one of the most amazing indicator species. We talk about the canaries in the mineshaft as the indicator that their air quality has collapsed and it’s time to get out. Well, I think we should see the monarch butterfly as the harbinger of some amazing information for us to quickly integrate because this is a case where nature needs us now.

What caught my eye most was how effectively McDonough describes (and Makower reports) a step-by-step how-to for inspiring action.

The conversation starts with the end in mind–a beautiful, meaningful, lasting result. Just like the very best Design of any kind, and intrinsic to Cradle to Cradle projects.

Here’s how an outline of the article looks to me:

* * *

Nature is beautiful and meaningful. (Start with the end in mind)

But it needs our help. (The problem)

How can we go about doing that? (The challenge)

Here’s a specific answer to a specific problem:

Make it about children.

Children love butterflies.

Butterflies start as caterpillars.

Caterpillars need flowers and plants, including milkweeds.

Plant lots of butterfly and pollinator friendly plants.

But milkweeds are scraggy plants and sound weedy. (An obstacle to be overcome)

So let’s call them milkflowers instead and plant them everywhere that’s not a park. (A solution that keeps the process moving forward)

Let’s have a a BUTTERFLY REVOLUTION (Moving the solution to scale with a positive, collaborative idea that brings people together for a common purpose)

For kids. (Brings it all around to the beginning as kids grow up to be parents who have kids)

* * *

Kudos to Makower for so ably presenting McDonough’s elegant ideas.

I’m touched by something else that goes unsaid in this article.

McDonough is implicitly acknowledging his indirect connections to an industry that harms Nature: forestry.

While McDonough has never personally wielded an ax to Mexico’s forests, his life’s work as a builder and designer has caused harm through overlogging.

Thankfully, the overlogging that threatened Mexico’s Monarch migration has largely ceased.

Blame for the Monarch’s extinction risk has shifted north, to agricultural practices that have decimated milkweeds populations.

McDonough’s sensible solution includes pollinator-friendly public spaces, inspired by the love we all share for children, and the love they have for butterflies.

As a designer and architect of considerable renown, McDonough has a platform to speak out for Nature. (Another great communications tactic is picking the best, more credible messenger.)

The article’s title, “Why Nature Needs Humans” is very smart too.

Framing the discussion in this way gets people to pull back from our usual perspective of taking and consuming from Nature. This step back lets readers see things from a broader perspective.

To see things from a fresh perspective.

It’s true, ineluctably, that Nature needs us.

And by answering that need, we find we need it back.

Green Business: Dodging Big Data’s big problems

Big Data is a big deal. But it’s not the Be All and End All.

Just because you can analyze everything, doesn’t mean you should.

Or that it will help you solve your problem.

Here’s Part 7 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for Greenbiz.com.

Dodging Big Data’s big problems

Many people are very high on Big Data. Perhaps they are right to be. Like many of the earlier pitfalls, but even more so here, are there things this super-powered use of numbers might be blocking us from seeing? As Big Data lets the forest become more understandable (both metaphorically and literally), will we miss more lessons from the trees?

The increasing emphasis on data, technology and efficiency will not make it any easier to ignore the still commonly downplayed social and equity side of sustainability. But perhaps, if privacy and the other above concerns with Big Data are faced with foresight, creativity and an enhanced sense of fairness, we might find that they actually help us move towards sustainability, surprising the skeptics among us.

And then we might possibly avoid the common fate of earlier breakthrough technologies: one step forward, followed by a half step back — at the least.

Green Business: Why sustainability metrics needs to consider simplicity

Life’s complicated. That’s the simple part.

Here’s Part 5 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for Greenbiz.com. We dive deeper into Complexity scholarship and offer some practical resources for Sustainability practitioners to make things simpler.

Why Sustainability Metrics Need to Mix Simplicity With Complexity

Over the course of this series, we’ve described pitfalls where steps that look like the right course sometimes backfire. Life cycle analysis, for instance, may lead to a surprise about the assumed high priority of recycling for every item.

But systems thinking is hard. So in this piece, while we continue to provide additional reasons why it’s essential, we add some “practically idealistic” ideas to make it more feasible.


Green Business: Why Complexity Matters

The devil’s in the (complicated) details.

You know the old joke that if a problem can be fixed with money, it’s not a problem?

Same goes for measuring Sustainability. If a measurement problem can be fixed with numbers, it wasn’t much of a problem to start with.

Real problems are complex.

Here’s Part 4 of my co-written series on Sustainability Metrics for Greenbiz.com:

Why Complexity Matters When Measuring Sustainability

We note that systems thinking is starting to come up in sustainable business conversations, but remain concerned about persistent mindsets that ignore complexity. Without it, sustainability practitioners are unequipped to grapple with a point that should come up early in metrics work: “Did we just miss something very important?”

Too many articles implicitly distill big problems into linear, simpler solutions. While the latter have an important place, the large reliance on them fails the global test — in all senses of the term — that our world’s challenges demand.

Green Business: Metrics Pitfalls, Part I

People are really bad at math.

When you start paying attention, you start noticing all the ways that humans miscount, ignore, dismiss, subvert or otherwise mangle the numbers we use to draw conclusions and make decisions.

The problem is, we think we’re being rational. But we’re not.

This kind of cognitive dissonance makes my head hurt. Especially when it comes to how we as a collective society are driving headlong towards the Climate Change cliff.

Why on earth do we continue to make such terrible, terrible choices?

Risk expert David Ropeik has a bead on the answer. He writes about the choices we make that are against our best interests and in spite of evidence to the contrary:

Risk Perception

We worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (vaccines, nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about some threats than the evidence warns (climate change, obesity, using our mobiles when we drive).

That produces what I have labeled The Perception Gap, the gap between our fears and the facts, which is a huge risk in and of itself.

The Perception Gap …produces social policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what in fact threatens us the most (we spend more to protect ourselves from terrorism than heart disease)…which in effect raises our overall risk.

Ropeik’s research is so satisfying to me because it explains why people act the way they do–sometimes inexplicably, often quixotically, frequently capriciously.

These kinds of inquires have led me to a writing partnership with Matt Polsky for GreenBiz.com. Our article series examines the pitfalls of sustainability measurements by drawing on examples from outside the business world.

Here’s part 1: What Sustainability Metrics Can Learn from School Reform