Most of us are yearning to do something about the dire situation facing us. Issues such as global warming, inequality, and poverty – and many, many more, as outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – are now becoming visible and in consequence have gained urgency. Taking ownership of sustainability issues like these and acting in their name forms the new leadership mandate for you and your executive team.
- Busting Sustainability Myths
- Changing Senior Leadership Mindsets by Instilling Sustainability Ownership
- Defining Corporate Purpose key to Sustainability Ownership
- Cascading Purpose
- The Author
I was visiting the Chief Operations Officer of a Fortune 500 financial services company in May 2015, trying to learn about their efforts to become more sustainable. This firm managed large pensions and insurance assets, touching the lives of millions and if any company needed to address the big issues such as climate change or water, it was this one. The executive spoke eloquently about the firm’s desire to do well by doing good. It wanted to be a “responsible corporate citizen” that looked out for different “stakeholder groups.” For that reason, the company was actively engaging with public-interest groups, he said. It was acting on environmental issues and measuring the impact of these actions. He noted that he and the company’s Chairman had given speeches about rising to meet big sustainability challenges. Both were posted online, he added with some pride.
I found myself wondering whether the executive was giving me the whole truth or merely feeding me the company line. He sounded very impressive and the company as a whole seemed to “get it.” But then why was the company making only mediocre progress in investing in renewable energy, or coming up with green solutions?
The answer would reveal itself during my conversation with a more junior executive who on probing, revealed that the company had been struggling for some time to get ahead of emerging changes in markets and societies. “We have too many different approaches,” he said. “The messages from the top are mixed, and as a result, my colleagues and I are confused. We certainly don’t feel all that responsible to actually do our part.” This manager seemed relieved about finally being able to communicate what he had long felt but couldn’t openly express; he had been “uncomfortably numb” this whole time. He was frustrated that his everyday reality on the job didn’t measure up with the company’s professed ideals, and he assured me that others in the company felt the same. Now I understood why the senior executive had been so nervous about speaking with me. The company had a glossy sustainability report and website, but not much else to show for itself. Leadership didn’t regard enlightened, forward-looking policies as key to the company’s own future success; they viewed the sustainability imperative as “someone else’s problem.”
I wish I could say that this company is unique, but it isn’t. Over the past five years, I’ve visited dozens of large, publicly listed companies and spoken with hundreds of employees, middle managers, and senior leaders. I’ve been to branch offices, mines, stores, and factories. I’ve traveled from Madagascar to the heartland of India to the streets of London to the outskirts of Shanghai to Chile’s Atacama Desert. I’ve solicited the observations of top-level executives, senior managers, and a host of regular employees. The result of this research is my latest book, “Small Actions, Big Difference” that offers a framework for leaders who want to leverage the human capital in their employees bases and be long-run sustainable.
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Dr. CB Bhattacharya, founder and Director of the Center for Sustainable Business, is the H.J. Zoffer Chair in Sustainability and Ethics at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. He is a world-renowned expert in business strategy innovation aimed at increasing both business and social value. Prof. Bhattacharya has published over 100 articles and has over 31,000 citations per Google Scholar. His latest book entitled “Small Actions Big Difference: Leveraging Corporate Sustainability to Drive Business and Societal Value” was published by Routledge in 2019.
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