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6 Leadership Attributes for Leading Companies to Sustainability

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Investment & Markets

Changing Tack, the final report of the Regeneration Roadmap, a joint project by GlobeScan and SustainAbility, has just launched last week. It focuses on the sustainability challenges that remain great and growing and the role business has to play in providing much needed solutions.

For business the premise of the report can be summarized the words of Winston Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” After all, how else you can describe the complex, systemic sustainability challenges business needs to address in an environment still dominated by short-term and unsustainable growth pressures? And did we mention the pubic that seems to have very little trust in business but very high expectations of it at the same time?

Just like with Churchill the aim here is victory, or in the words of the report “to guarantee present and future societies and ecosystems thrive.” But can business change its tack? Or even more importantly, does business really want to do it?

In a webcast that followed the launch of the report, Jo Confino of Guardian Sustainable Business, who moderated the discussion with senior executives from BMW, Cisco, FBDS and SC Johnson, put his finger on one of the problems:

“Some business leaders I speak to privately say, well, actually we’re going to need a major major disaster to really wake people up because people are still sticking with the status quo, saying, well, it worked in the past, it will continue to work. It might get worse but we’re going to handle it,” Confino explained. So what’s going to be the driver of change for business to really get this and to really embed it into the center of their operations, he asked?

Chris Coulter, President of GlobeScan, answered, explaining that the main drivers are companies’ self-interest (especially with large companies), the competitive nature of companies and the fact that companies can’t make a transition to create a long-term sustainable value.

As the report explains, while a cohort of leading companies understand the imperatives and act accordingly, embracing the imperative of sustainable development leadership, many companies still lag behind in what the report identifies as a leadership gap. To close this gap, the report suggests that companies consider six ‘extended’ leadership attributes which are essential to success:

1. Vision - articulates a company’s unique role in and contribution to a sustainable future. It describes a compelling and relevant destination for the organization and inspires employees, partners and other stakeholders to help achieve it.

2. Goals - help define the destination expressed in the vision and establish waypoints on the journey. When they are ambitious and specific, they boost stakeholder trust and engagement and help unlock both competition and collaboration to drive innovation.

3. Offer – calls on companies to evolve the nature and substance of their core propositions - their products, services and the business models that underpin them - to deliver on their vision for sustainability. This attribute requires developing products and services that push the boundaries of both different (internalizing externalities) and better (more socially conscious products and services).

4. Brand – is the effective expression of vision, goals and offer through a compelling brand promise and communications. It creates opportunity to engage and reshape fundamental values and mindsets.

5. Transparency - provides relevant, appropriate, timely signals to all market players. This requires further and faster evolution of traditional corporate sustainability reporting, plus new approaches better able to engage, inform and influence.

6. Advocacy – helps businesses to shape more sustainable behavior and choices across the economy. This means mobilizing others, including policymakers, other companies, investors and consumers, to help reform policy, market incentives and other system conditions to drive sustainability further (and faster) into the mainstream.

“ While these are certainly not the only means companies might use to address the opportunities and imperatives that Changing Tack has outlined, we believe they will be the most essential and impactful in the near term,” the authors write. And indeed this framework makes a lot of sense when you think of the ingredients required to provide the desired outcome – a rapid, vast systematic change that will lead us into a more sustainable future.

Yet, as comprehensive and to the point this roadmap is, and similarly to other roadmaps of organizations like Ceres and BSR, it leaves you wondering what we need to ignite this sort of systematic change in business. Do we just need to wait for more disasters to happen like Confino commented, or is there another more positive way to make this change happen?

One thing we need to remember is that while we expect business to act rationally, many times it doesn’t, at least not from a long-term perspective. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said recently that he saw in a recent survey in the U.S. that “75 percent of the CEOs were willing to postpone the right decisions if it would affect their quarterly reporting.”

“That cannot be healthy for the long-term of the business," Polman added. I guess no one would argue with that, but still CEOs do it. So how do you get the majority of CEOs to change course and act like Polman? I guess this question will have to wait for another report.

[Image credit: The Regeneration Roadmap]

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

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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