Tag Archives: sustainable

Seek Out and Learn from Sustainability Leaders

In a recent article, How to Become a Sustainable Company, in the Summer 2012 issue of the MIT/Sloan Management Review they ask the question, “What differentiates sustainable companies from traditional ones?” To the answer in a minute.

Although the article references commitment to sustainability, noting that few companies are born with it, an issue arises for me that goes beyond terminology and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding  – to be a sustainable company is not equal to being a company committed to sustainability. The adjective, sustainable and the noun sustainability are not one in the same. Unfortunately, the former is what is popular in business, both public and private and the answer to the question above demonstrates what I mean. According to the article the differences are:

  • Sustainable organizations are effective at engaging with external stakeholders and employees
  • They have cultures based on innovation and trust
  • They have a track record of implementing large-scale change

These are not unique to sustainability nor to sustainable companies. Petroleum and  toxin-based companies, for example, may be successful at all three and yet have no commitment to sustainability, to the seven generations, mired as their leadership may be in the short term, and, ultimately, in denial about global warming and the inability of an economic system that externalizes risk and costs to ever bounce back.

Sustainability is a goal, a desire, a hope and it signifies the ABILITY to drive change, first, at the personal level. We need sustainability leaders to drive a sustainability culture in their organizations. This point is raised in the MIT/Sloan report:

“When leadership commitment drives the process, it usually comes from the personal resolution of a CEO to create a more sustainable company. In general, top-level executives have the ability to create an enterprise-wide vision and the clout to see that it is realized. Without this commitment, becoming a sustainable company is a “nonstarter.”

While leadership commitment is talked about as critical,  the report continues with the language of ” leaders of traditional and sustainable companies” rather than sustainability leaders of companies directing our attention to how things are not working rather than who is working. Our sustainability leaders need to influence their “traditional” peers, first,  to raise their consciousness as quickly as possible.  There are two very effective ways to advance the personal and model the behavior that is desperately needed.

Online Video

Screen shot 2012-06-19 at 11.30.53 AMHere’s an interview with Dominique Conseil , Global President of Aveda and Karl-Henrik Robert founder of the Natural Step, both sustainability leaders. Or listen to The Regeneration Project’s Ray Anderson Memorial video series, here is one video, Why Meaningful Progress Depends on Activists – Spotlight on Civil Society, featuring sustainability leaders Jonathon Porritt, Vandana Shiva, Nitin Desai, Lester Brown, Bill Ford, Kris Gopaladrishman, Yolanda Kakabadse and Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Online Video and Research

Dr. David Hall of Portland State University stepped out of the box and advanced the personal by producing a series of sustainability leadership videos as part of his research called Native Perspectives. Here you can listen to the indigenous voices, sustainability leaders, of the Salmon Nation.


The Regeneration Project, between July and October, will host a number of Salons – curated, facilitated conversations sustainability leaderswith influential stakeholders from across industry and sector. These Salons will take place in major international cities across the world. Attendance is to be limited  to approximately 50 people, on an invitation-only basis.  Great work and hopefully the start of something fresh in sustainability awareness, education, and innovation.  The project is an inititiave of GlobeScan, a public opinion research company and Sustainability, a think tank and strategy consultancy.

All of this is to say go ahead and read the research digging into sustainable companies,  but give more time to listening to your peers who are sustainability leaders, pioneers, heroes, and innovators.  Look for research and events that emphasize the personal over organizational. Rely less on processed information when you can now hear directly from the sustainability leadership as found in the hundreds of companies that are for-benefit and in the hundreds of voices of sustainability from across the Web, the reason we invested in bringing together these voices for you in one place, EarthSayers.tv, voices of sustainability.

Ruth Ann Barrett, Sustainability Advocate, June 19, 2012, Portland, Oregon.

Process Matters

McKinsey released a report this month, The Case for Behavioral Strategy, which pulls out the fly in the ointment by doing the analysis on the question:  “how much of the variance in decision outcomes was explained by the quality of the process and how much by the quantity and detail of the analysis.”

The answer: process mattered more than analysis—by a factor of six. The fly being poor processes of which any one who has spent any time in large companies knows out trumps the numbers, but, well numbers are king. Or were.  They are important, of course, but “superb analysis is useless unless the decision process gives it a fair hearing.”  And, as you will find out reading the report, superior processes improve ROI.

Sustainability initiatives present an excellent opportunity to address unsustainable processes.

While in this post I called out the process message from the study, the story begins with the profound “cultural change” it’s going to take to “debais” strategic decisions. Well worth a read and for the C-level executives a chance to look at how they might be converting process or work problems to people problems. This is how social sustainability can begin to play a bigger role in “greening” our institutions and cities.

My mentor, Dr. Herbert Heaton, then Comptroller of the Rockefeller Foundation and a numbers guy, warned me of the inclination for decision makers to convert work problems to people problems, resulting in firings and lay-offs, and an inordinate amount of time spent accepting and rejecting people.  My boss and mentor, Dr. Randy Hamilton, then of the Institute for Local Self Government, weighed in with the observation that “people hire in their image and likeness.” As I said, this study addresses the role bias plays in our decision-making. Here’s the hard part:  “..in strategic decision making leaders need to recognize their own biases.” Now let me link all this talk about process and bias to employment.

The workforce of a company is its most strategic asset and addressing the bias inherent in the process of acquiring and managing this asset is what I move to the top of the list.  The report  doesn’t really talk about people-related decisions favoring instead to reference decisions around mergers, strategic plans that often ignore competitive responses, and investment projects.  Social sustainability and prosperity go together, you can’t have one without the other and prosperity is our economic foundation.