Are You Leading Change or Is Change Leading You?

Geneva, Switzerland (WBCSD)- Climate change and ecosystem degradation make if even more imperative for business to pursue sustainable development (SD). Many companies have adopted sustainability principles, but few have managed to ensure that these principles cause change across their operations. This requires effective leadership within top management and individual business units.

This article, prepared by Danielle Carpenter of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WNCSD), draws upon comments made at the WBCSD’s Liaison Delegate’s meeting held recently. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of WBCSD.

While it is tempting to try to make employees and organizations respond like machines when pushing buttons or making pronouncements, organizations must do more than publish statements of intent, business principles and policies. They must align their company culture and capabilities with these statements to win over their employees and inspire trust to avoid a discrepancy between policy and practice. Training courses, policies and reports have never achieved change simply by their existence.

Companies’ SD leaders can fail in many ways: declaring victory and moving on without anything substantial to show for it; failing to link SD and organizational strategy; failing to create buy-in; failing to make innovation and change systematic; making the pursuit of sustainability too bureaucratic; failing to be bold enough.

Where does leadership for sustainability come from within an organization and how can it be made to deliver strategic objectives? At the WBCSD’s Liaison Delegate’s meeting in Montreux, Michael Hathorn from Peak Value Group talked about the cornerstones of leading SD change:

  • Culture and mindset – leading for SD change needs to be seen as an opportunity for each employee;

  • Balancing change and continuity – it’s the difference between the two that makes a difference;

  • Fostering innovation and embedding change, both organizational level capabilities;

  • Letting the structure of the SD program follow strategy.

Offering another point of view, DuPont’s Dawn Rittenhouse said it is not about getting the leaders of change to act while other employees go off and do other things. She sees the need to build engagement through things like footprint goals, dialogue, discussions and reporting and embedding all that into what already exists, not building something new that employees will have to deal with.

DuPont uses capacity building as a resource to engage people in conversation, employing recent MBA graduates to help move the company towards sustainable business, getting employees from different levels engaged by putting them on the internal jury for a company-wide sustainability prize, or by showing them what their impacts are and how they can change.

Interface, on the other hand, uses three levels of training to get employees involved and build leaders. First, all employees are given basic sustainability training using a high-level view and strategy. This is critical to creating a group of equals. Then there is a second level, which employees can choose to do, related to actions and job functions. This sparks new ideas and serves as a benchmark for employees and their knowledge.

The third level comprises a critical analysis of skills in relation to key sustainability issues outside of the company to inspire different ways of thinking about sustainability. The target audience for this level is people who will act as sustainability ambassadors. An external partner conducts this training and each employee is assessed individually and must present an idea for possible implementation. A set proportion of an ambassador’s time is spent on this and it will soon be part of their job description.

This suggests that “senior management is necessary but not sufficient,” according to Hathorn. While it is reasonable for top management to be aware and involved, that alone does not guarantee success. The top leadership must show that they support the direction the company is headed, but it still needs to be tied to the rationale of the business, the nuts and bolts; conviction is not enough.

The leaders do need to have certain qualities in order to succeed. First of all, they must be able to learn from others. The leaders cannot be experts on everything. Along with knowledge and expertise, they also need the energy to move forward. They need to be able to lead by example, even if they are not in the top management. This can help create new partnerships, thinking and practices.

And the leaders need to be able to adapt to different leadership styles, which will change according to region and country. This is particularly important for large multinationals where different sensitivities will abound. So is the sustainable development manager the real change leader in a company? It would appear not, if you listen to the sustainable development managers themselves.

As one participant said, “I don’t think the sustainable development manager is the leader of sustainable development” but rather the coordinator. They must not exist in an ivory tower, but engage with their peers. This declaration was met with a lot of head nodding.

Ron Nielsen from Alcan summed up the thinking with “There is a real need to get this into the hands of everyone.”

For More Information: World Business Council - WBCSD

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