Leading Change in the Age of Sustainability

by Anthony Corso

The emerging role of the sustainability professional is changing “business as usual.”

The dawn of the 21st century has seen a global movement—worthy of the attention of all of us—to address systemic problems associated with ecological destruction, social injustice, climate change, political unrest and economic uncertainty that are truly global in scope and impact. Growing numbers of individuals and organizations, not connected formally nor linked by a common ideology, are working to address these problems through passion, intelligence and resilience. This worldwide movement to create a more sustainable future is pushing society to a tipping point, and the ways in which businesses, organizations and governments operate are changing.

So how did the call for sustainability make its way from the agenda of scientists, environmentalists and social justice advocates to the boardrooms of nearly every major corporation on the planet?

An Emerging Field

In the last decade of the 20th century, an inspired generation of entrepreneurs and leaders in industry and government began to think differently about how we interact with the world. Corporate leaders like Ray Anderson, the late founder of Interface Inc., were determined to show that businesses could generate profits without compromising environmental health or human well-being. Numerous great thinkers in the business world began creating plans to leverage the tools of commerce and the growing influence of corporations to advance environmental sustainability.

Rather than simply decrying the failures and negative impacts of current practices, these individuals pushed change from the inside. By the turn of the century, partnerships began to develop among businesses, institutions, governments, and pioneering organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute and The Natural Step. The innovative ideas and practices of environmental entrepreneur Paul Hawken, architect William McDonough and countless others began to foster the development of metrics that organizations could use to measure success based on the premise of global sustainability.

Over the past decade, an entirely new profession has emerged, charged with changing the cultural paradigms in order to address the opportunities and challenges of this shift. These sustainability professionals exist in a diverse cross-section of business, government and other organizations, but they are all working to develop new processes and ways of thinking to change “business as usual.” They are collaborating across industries and political boundaries to share best practices in a manner and at a scale never seen before.

The practice of change management is not new, but sustainability professionals are playing a unique and evolving role in the process. They must effectively build interpersonal relationships; translate complex concepts in order to inspire others to embrace change; quantify the economic, environmental and social impacts of that change; and create channels of communication that reach in all directions. In the end, the goal is to accelerate the adoption of sustainability within organizations and communities.

On the one hand, this requires the skills of an effective change agent, and on the other, expertise in the principles and practices of sustainable development. In all cases, sustainability professionals must work to understand the patterns and relationships that make each place or organization unique, and then translate that understanding into specific strategies that integrate this new way of thinking into the culture at hand.

Building Relationships

Sustainability professionals are generally passionate and knowledgeable about the work they do. How successfully they leverage this passion and knowledge to develop a team of key stakeholders representative of their organization’s diversity is what makes or breaks their efforts.

Sustainability professionals can be found at any level in an organization, from leadership to the grassroots, but more often than not, they are tasked with rallying colleagues behind a common cause, despite the lack of an obligatory relationship. The goal is to build relationships that enable the creation of a collaborative team in which everyone contributes to the solutions.

This represents a key paradigm shift from the leadership model of the industrial age to the model emerging for the sustainability age—and one that is likely to encounter resistance. Today’s most effective leaders know that sharing power can create a genuine sense of ownership and buy-in, and that their team will shed blood, sweat and tears to carry the effort forward. As it turns out, inspiring others to a cause is much more fruitful in the long run than pressuring them into it. The days of leading with an “iron fist” are behind us.

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Translating Concepts & Building Consensus

There are few professions in which new tools and resources emerge faster than in the world of sustainability, and sustainability professionals are charged with digesting and assimilating them meaningfully into the community or organizational culture. In addition to a fundamental knowledge of the principles and practices of sustainable development, a broad and diverse background can prove invaluable. In dealing with an endless array of issues, the ability to relate to many points of view and speak the language of your audience increases the likelihood that these concepts will be adopted by others. That sometimes means that you need to check the “S-word” at the door, and take the time to truly understand their needs and desires.

In order to build consensus, sustainability professionals must not only translate critical concepts in terms that others can understand, they must also understand the motivations for change. The most successful efforts are based on an understanding of what really drives individuals and organizations to behave a certain way.

Defining the What, How and Why are key components of any persuasive strategy, yet the What and How are not what ultimately inspire us to change behavior or think differently—it’s the Why that motivates us at a rudimentary level. The advertising world has employed this knowledge of human behavior for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to take part in a high-level marketing meeting without hearing that “consumers don’t respond to data [rational—the What and How], they respond to needs and desires [emotional—the Why].”

Simon Sinek, an author and leadership expert, often cites Apple as an organization that effectively leverages the Why to inspire change and influence behavior. According to Sinek, what’s made Apple so successful is their approach to what they do. Rather than starting with the typical persuasive progression of What they do (make great computers), How they do it (in a user-friendly, elegant way) and Why they do it (to serve consumers and sell computers) like most of their competition, they do it in reverse.

Apple begins with the Why (challenging the status quo, thinking differently), and then moves on to the How (making beautifully-designed products that are simple to use) and finally, the What (making great computers). By beginning with a cause that inspires us, they develop an emotional connection to their brand. This has informed Sinek’s refrain that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” His attempts to codify the biology behind why we seek to associate with like-minded individuals have helped organizations understand how this impacts our behavior and develop tools for inspirational leadership.

Quantifying Impacts of Change

It is the normative approach in business and government to tally the dollars and cents to inform a rational decision-making process. This approach is typically demanded of us, and in some cases, it’s a legal obligation. Recent events on the global financial stage have raised questions in the collective consciousness regarding specific indicators and financial tools that have long been used to inform our economic decisions. Attempts to make smarter economic choices have become increasingly convoluted even without the broader considerations of sustainability. A truly sustainable approach to evaluating our economic decisions requires a strategic, holistic approach and a new set of tools. This process will inevitably require more transparency and accountability than currently exists.

So how do we begin to quantify the environmental and social dimensions? To make an “apples to apples” comparison of economic, environmental and social impacts, we need to use a common measure. Research over the last quarter-century has yielded some useful ways of putting a monetary value on things that are not accounted for in standard economics. Generalized costs for the ecosystem and social services—providing for fresh air, clean water, food, health and well-being, community building, etc.—have been developed to aid in such an evaluation. The point is not to say that the value of a tree—or a human life—is only worth so much, but to force the consideration of the broader contribution of natural capital in an interconnected system through a process known as systems thinking.

As we begin to reconnect the dots between the laws of the natural world and the constructs of modern society, we are creating better and better tools to make informed, intelligent decisions by incorporating long-term context into the choices we make. The Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an increasingly common tool used by industry and government to evaluate financial decisions in a more comprehensive manner. LCA is a process of identifying the impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from cradle to grave, including extraction of raw materials, processing, manufacture, distribution, operation and maintenance, and finally, disposal or recycling back into the material cycle.

True Cost Accounting is another tool, based on an economic model that quantifies the cost of externalities into the pricing of products, processes and services. This type of model allows all the required information on the direct and indirect costs (e.g. pollution, habitat destruction, loss of farmland, human or other ecological health impacts, etc.) to be included in the price we pay rather than remain as a hidden cost to burden taxpayers later, often disproportionately impacting an underrepresented community. Considering these new values as part of the equation radically changes the outcome of the economic evaluations that inform contemporary decision-making. Using these more holistic accounting approaches results in the most sustainable product or process—optimized for economic, environmental and social benefit—being the least costly.

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Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time inside buildings. There has long been anecdotal evidence that we are deeply influenced by our environment, but in recent decades, the body of scientific evidence that attributes positive impacts to buildings and urban landscapes designed according to the principles of sustainability has grown. William J. Fisk and his colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory set out to quantify the impacts of a healthy indoor environment (e.g. fresh air, access to natural light, visual and thermal comfort) in our places of work. Published in 2002, their findings suggested that U.S. businesses could save $58 billion in avoided sick time and another $200 billion in increased worker performance and productivity gains each year by providing better indoor environmental quality.

Not only have “green” buildings been shown to improve productivity and occupant health and well-being, but additional benefits like reduced turnover, easier recruitment of top talent, and energy and resource reductions have been typical findings in subsequent studies. Given that employees are the largest expense for most organizations, it’s no surprise that so many have adopted green building standards or goals based on the benefits of a healthy indoor environment alone.

This example begins to highlight a critical concept in sustainability that relies on an understanding of systems thinking. When we optimize something in isolation, we tend to pessimize the system as a whole. Creating the most cost-effective building might look great in an economic analysis, but will often undermine environmental and social considerations. In the world of business, that means negative repercussions for the bottom line.

Communication, Communication, Communication

We all know how important effective communication is in our workplace and community. In the process of collaborative change, it becomes even more critical. Within organizations, buy-in at all levels is necessary to institute the scale and scope of change required. In a corporation, this means that the C-suite (the leadership), employees (the grassroots), and middle management (the enablers) all play a critical role. Sustainability professionals must communicate upwards, downwards and across the organization to ensure that everyone knows what is being proposed and feels he or she has played a role in its development. Not everyone has to agree on every detail, but all should feel that they have had a chance to contribute.

The development of change initiatives such as educational events, case studies, internal competitions and pilot projects have yielded rapid and meaningful results in businesses, large institutions and government. These results, however, have been wholly dependent on effective communication to celebrate successes and share lessons learned. In recent years, the rise of websites and blogs for sharing ideas and innovations, such as worldchanging.com and TED.com, have fostered a new kind of web-based collaboration in which tools and strategies are shared in new ways across vast distances. This newfound collaboration space is connecting individuals and organizations and allowing them to share best practices. And it is inspiring a new generation of world-changers.

Accelerating Change

One thing is for certain: the natural rate of cultural change is too slow to meet the challenges that lie before us. Generally speaking, the larger an organization, the slower the pace of change. The fundamental role of the sustainability professional is to accelerate this change. That’s done by building relationships that allow for the quick dissemination of critical information, policies or process changes; quantifying economic, environmental and social impacts for key decision makers so they have reason to act now; and maintaining communication throughout the organization to ensure a successful transition. No matter what the relative speed of change, it will always feel too slow to the sustainability professional.

Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, was known for his belief that incrementalism is the enemy of innovation. He believed that radical change was the only way to drive innovation and successfully achieve one’s goals. To this end, he believed that continuous improvement strategies created a sense of complacency around the issue at hand.

The sustainability professional provides insights that allow key stakeholders to see beyond their typical field of vision in the hopes of inspiring a massive change in culture. The stakeholders themselves must become an integral part of this process. As more and more members within a culture adopt this new mode of operation, they will reach a tipping point, after which the new paradigm becomes “business as usual.” The challenge of the sustainability professional is to inspire this massive change and provide the tools and resources for it to become mainstream as quickly as possible. iBi

Anthony Corso is the sustainability coordinator and director of green building programs at Illinois Central College. He is founder of the Central Illinois Green Expo and Green Drinks Peoria.

 

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