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Lessons in Leadership from the CEO with the World’s Most Sustainable Suit

Raz Godelnik
| Monday November 5th, 2012 | 0 Comments

A week ago participants at the BSR conference were asked to answer the question: “What presents the greatest barrier to wider uptake of sustainability among companies worldwide?” There were four options to choose from and the results were: consumer disinterest – 34 percent, investor disinterest – 24 percent, lack of business leadership – 24 percent, and public policy failures – 18 percent.

I don’t know about the others who chose “lack of business leadership,” but when I did, I was thinking about Marc Bolland, CEO of Marks & Spencer, who addressed the audience just couple of hours earlier. I couldn’t stop thinking that even if 15 or 20 percent of the CEOs were thinking and acting like Bolland, we would be in a much better place now.

The talk Bolland gave and the Q&A that followed with Aron Cramer was not just a great introduction (if you still need one) to Plan A, but also a valuable lesson on leadership in business, the kind we need if we really want to push the fast forward button. So what’s Bolland’s secret sauce? I believe it’s a combination of having a very clear vision on sustainability while keeping his feet on the ground at the same time.

The leadership Bolland shows starts with the shareholders. Cramer asked him if there is a risk that investors will think he cares too much about the sustainability agenda. Bolland’s reply was that he wasn’t into short-termism, or in his own words: “I didn’t promise anyone a better short-term hedge fund opportunity.” From the beginning, he added, it was clear that this is about transformation of the company. Now, don’t get him wrong – he doesn’t believe that the short-term doesn’t matter, but if I got him right, he also believes in a long-term vision that shapes the way the company acts right here, right now.

If this approach sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is very similar to the one you hear time and again from Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever who famously said that Unilever “had to get off the treadmill of quarterly reporting and operate for the long term” and acted accordingly. Bolland didn’t go as far as eliminating quarterly earnings guidance like Polman did, but like his fellow Dutchman, Bolland is very straightforward, unapologetic and clear about why sustainability is important to business. It’s no accident that both of them present sustainability as the only business model that makes sense given the growing environmental and social pressures on companies. Did I mention that they’re also friends?

Bolland explained that he and Polman share ideas on sustainability in business – whenever Polman sees something interesting he calls or emails Bolland and vice versa. Bolland exercises the principle of information sharing not just with Polman, but also with other CEOs as he believes this is an effective way to accelerate progress in business – everything we do should be shared on a neutral basis, he explained.

Although Bolland is very passionate about sustainability, he is well aware of the challenges, especially in terms of engaging consumers and changing their behavior. One of the things that makes it more difficult is the sluggish economy. Sustainability is less on the radar of consumers than it was three or four years ago, he admitted, adding that economic priorities pushed sustainability lower in people’s priority list.

So how do you get people back to appreciating sustainability? The solution, according to Bolland, is to make it desirable. One of the products that M&S started selling lately – and is supposed to reflect this sort of desirability – is a suit, which M&S calls the “world’s most sustainable suit.” Bolland came wearing the suit and to show that he can not only walk the talk, but also model it, he stood up and showed the audience the different parts of the suit, explaining what makes them more sustainable. The bottom line is that the suit is well designed, stylish, made of sustainable materials, manufactured in ethical conditions and, last, but not least, is sold at an affordable price for this line of suits (about $550).

Another important part of Bolland’s recipe for creating a winning sustainable formula is having a passionate group of people around you. He said that the staff at the stores are very positive about Plan A and that this is one of the elements that make them proud to work at M&S. This is not just because what Plan A represents, but also because M&S puts a lot of effort in engaging and educating its employees about it.

At the end of his talk, Cramer asked Bolland if he has any advice for someone in the audience working for a company with a CEO who remains skeptical about sustainability. Bolland argued first that this is mostly not about skepticism, but about clarity (or lack of clarity) of the roadmap. The solution, he said, is to focus on three or four things you’re good at and start your journey there.

Marc Bolland doesn’t have all the answers, but he definitely provides a roadmap that is balanced and realistic, but at the same time also ambitious and visionary. This is exactly the sort of leadership we need in order to move forward and even fast forward – now I guess we only need to find how to make it desirable.

[Image credit: Marks and Spencer]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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