Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Taking the lead in stormy times

By 3p Contributor
By Adam Woodhall — How are corporate sustainability professionals—and the organisations they work with—to lead through this post-Brexit period facing our society? How are they looking to turn the daunting challenges of unprecedented uncertainty for British society into opportunities?   
Two reports issued earlier this year, pre-Brexit, offer some prescient clues for leaders to navigate the post-Brexit stormy waters ahead. Exhibit A: "A Behavioural Competency Model for Sustainability Leaders" by Beth Knight of EY, delivered through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Exhibit B: "Beyond the Perfect Storm,” by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).  
The challenge consists of the multifaceted social and environmental issues that our society faces, the so-called “Wicked Problems”. Mankind has always faced these, but in the past, issues were either more localised and/or there were strong actors who could drive the agenda. 
We arguably have a much more distributed locus of authority now, with the decline of government’s power to manage problems and the parallel rise in the influence of private enterprise. This gives business the opportunity to effect positive change and take responsibility for what happens next. However, the massive amount of complex flux (technological, economic, environmental) means that there are especially difficult choices to be made, particularly for those who have responsibility for guiding their organisations in handling these wicked problems through their sustainability strategies and practices.   
The warning contained in the IEMA report demonstrates that the ‘weather’ is closing in on many fronts. To pick just two areas, climate change and pollution, the statistics are pointing towards very unsettled conditions. There is now more than 400PPM of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, and global warming reached one degree above pre-industrial times for the first time in 2015.  Regarding pollution, an estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly one in four of total global deaths, according to estimates from the World Health Organisation.   
Results of a survey included in the IEMA report indicate that for many working in sustainability, there is a still a long way to go in embedding sustainability, with only 25% indicating general support within their organisation.  Therefore, there is a real opportunity for leadership.  
Beth Knight’s findings are particularly informative. She observes: “For those of us who work as Sustainability Leaders, one of the early ‘aha’ moments of our career are that, invariably, some of our efforts for a more sustainable world will work while many will not. A key factor in the success of any change initiative is the design and implementation of the initiative itself, which in turn highlights the need for designers (i.e. Sustainability Leaders) with the ability to ‘get the job done’! 
“Existing academic literature suggests that Sustainability Leaders need a wide-ranging and divergent mix of behavioural competencies to be successful. This formed the basis of my dissertation research as part of the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. To test whether such behaviours are displayed in practice, I used a psychometric questionnaire (Wave Professional Styles) to assess the behavioural competencies of ninety-seven Sustainability Leaders.” 
Knight’s research was based on a structure which had five headline aptitudes, with four competencies each as illustrated in the diagram. She found that the top ten competencies of Sustainability Leaders are: developing expertise; impressing people; establishing rapport; articulating information; interacting with people; valuing individuals; exploring possibilities; generating ideas; challenging ideas; and understanding people.
Six sustainability leaders offer thoughts on how to lead in post-Brexit times
Charles O’Malley, the founder of LEADX, an initiative of the Responsible Leadership Forum, contextualises the situation: 
“While we have a political, economic, social system that appears to everybody to working well, there's little perceived appetite for change. In management speak, there’s no burning platform. Brexit is a shock to the system, and it’s inevitable that we'll have an increasing scale and severity of shocks due to other aspects of the ‘stormy waters’. ?On the one hand, that doesn't sound like very good news, but equally, it is a necessary and inevitable part of our systems’ breakdown that a new system emerges which works more effectively.” 
Dame Polly Courtice, Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, underlines the urgency for action: 
“The Brexit referendum offered a seemingly clear and binary decision. However, two months later, the final outcome and long-term implications are far from clear. This has caused a huge amount of uncertainty. This mustn’t be used as an excuse for delaying action on sustainability. 
Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that global challenges such as climate change, inequality and biodiversity collapse require a global response. These issues do not respect borders, and in an increasingly connected global society, countries will have to find more effective forms of collaboration and communication. 
Managing Brexit calls for exactly the kind of leadership that is needed for sustainability – the kind we foster at the CISL. This kind of leadership builds trust and understanding across deep divides; makes decisions for the long- term, based on the best available evidence and in the widest interests of society; navigates complexity, uncertainty and volatility; collaborates; and above all, offers the strong and visionary leadership so urgently needed to secure the future.” 
Dr Alexandra Stubbings, Director of Talik & Company and a member of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS), suggests what a major role for sustainability professionals can be: 
“Post-Brexit, a number of senior business decision makers have been shaken by the realisation that there are some deeply disenfranchised people, and this means they are broadening the stakeholders they are talking to.  We are starting to see some deeper questions being asked about what it means to be a corporate, whether this is in construction, energy or fast moving consumer goods.  Some senior leaders are broadening what they think about, trying to make sense of what is going on, considering what business exists for and what is its purpose.” 
“If there is one key thing that sustainability professionals can do which can be helpful to those senior leaders, it is the sense making, by pulling in data. Our job can therefore be to help with more informed and meaningful understanding. Furthermore, don't be paralysed into taking no action, and don't take rash action.” 
Frank Krikhaar, Global Corporate Social Responsibility Director of Dentsu Aegis Media, a multinational media and digital marketing communications firm, looks at his own organisation and how collaboration can happen:  
“Today’s digital economy is bringing complexity, speed of change and disruption to traditional business models. From our point of view, this means we need sustainability professionals who work at the forefront of change in their own industry. Half of our sustainability teams at Dentsu Aegis Network are internal promotions and secondments. Creating a cottage industry of CSR professionals who speak a language only they themselves understand doesn’t create the systemic changes organisations needs to survive. Bring together our internal change makers and intrapreneurs, mobilise our own people and put them on sustainability briefs—that’s our mantra. 
We also need each and every industry to adopt collaborative approaches to solving issues together. That’s why we launched the Common Ground initiative with the United Nations to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the world’s biggest advertising and marketing groups. Competition can thrive hand-in-hand with cooperation across peers and into the supply chain, and foster a mindset that is emphatic, innovative and collaborative across the entire industry. Companies who shy away from this will find themselves shunned by their customers.”  
Matthew Sparkes, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Linklaters LLP and an ICRS board director, considers how it is possible to leverage the SDGs to help his firm navigate sustainability:  
“As a service business, our collective responsibility is really the sum of our people’s individual behaviour. It is therefore less about the 1% of time spent on ‘traditional’ CR such as delivering pro-bono advice and much more about the 99% of time our lawyers spend advising clients. Over recent years, we as a CR function have been working to broaden our relevance to this mainstream activity, encouraging and recognising appropriate behaviours during what remain challenging times. 
“Part of this mainstreaming has included considering our impact in light of the 17 SDGs. As well as community activity and pro bono work, we have looked at how we are addressing the goals through our operations and paid client work. It has been a real boost to see how much of our core activity supports many of the targets and we are now highlighting this internally and externally to show how a firm such as ours impacts positively on the most pressing issues of our generation.   
“One specific example is our Risk, Regulation and Governance practice.  SDG 16 promotes ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’ and the team’s expertise in good governance across all sectors is perfectly placed to support this goal. More broadly, the rule of law underpins not just a sustainable economy but also a healthy society and it is heartening to see how so much of our business contributes so directly to this.” 
An example of how a very large organisation can use grassroots leadership to support local causes at a national level is given by Jeff Oatham, Head of CR & Community Investment at Royal Mail:  
“We look to bring together people and different organisations to address a challenge in society. A few years ago we had a postman, Vincent Micallef, delivering mail and he was asked to help find a missing child. He not only did this, but took leadership and told colleagues to look out for the child. He saw an opportunity for Royal Mail to make a real difference. The CR team worked with the charity Missing People and the National Crime Agency to create a ground breaking initiative.” 
“A national partnership was made with the charity Missing People, and now Royal Mail distributes alerts of high risk missing people to around 120,000 front line employees and uses its PDA technology for a social benefit. Bringing together a small charity with a large organisation has made a huge difference, and this all started with Vincent’s leadership.” 
The ‘Beyond the Perfect Storm’ report highlights a quote from Robert Swan, the polar explorer and environmentalist: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief someone else will save it”. There are plenty of leaders who are taking action to support a continued flourishing of the society we all live in.  As Frank Krikhaar observes: “Those that don’t take action are at the mercy of the stormy weather ahead without any aids to help them stay buoyant.”

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Read more stories by 3p Contributor