It's a question that applies to individuals and organizations alike, and can be vexing for both. When one scans the landscape of companies seen to be sustainability leaders, questions quickly emerge: What do they have in common? How did they get there? What was the role of their leadership team, and of everyone below them, in achieving sustainability success?
And, perhaps most important: How successful, sustainability-wise, are these leadership companies? Do they stand a chance of "moving the needle" toward a more sustainable world, or are they simply tinkering at the margins?
A fascinating new study seeks to address such questions, and its findings underscore the challenges that face most companies seeking to demonstrate leadership in the sustainability arena.
The study (download here — PDF), by Atlanta-based Avastone Consulting, an international consultancy focusing on leadership and organizational effectiveness, resulted from one-on-one interviews with a diverse group of ten global corporations, representing metals and mining, high technology, foods, pharmaceuticals, industrial and consumer products, textiles, and chemicals. The companies had a mix of organizational histories, with legacies ranging from 25 to more than 200 years. All had a clear orientation toward sustainability. Six of the ten companies are listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index World and Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations. The research was conducted with company officers, vice presidents, or directors of sustainability/corporate responsibility from each company.
Avastone first looked at the direction and the progress of these companies in the sustainability arena. Beyond that, "What we were interested in was what are the mindsets of the business leaders, and how do those mindsets influence where a business is heading, and how do those leader's mindsets help or hinder their progress," study co-author Cynthia McEwen, who runs the firm's sustainability and leadership practice, told me recently. "And so we started to explore the nature of mindsets in a way that's never been done in the sustainability field." (You can listen to an interview I did with McEwen on GreenBiz Radio.)
This isn't the first study to examine sustainability and leadership, but it is one of the more comprehensive and intriguing, as it delves deeper into both organizational behavior and individual "mindsets" than any other I can recall. And while the findings of this study trend a bit toward the abstract — McEwen acknowledges that the intended audience for the study is not your average worker bee — there are some good nuggets here for anyone interested in this topic.
Their study found that it isn't a lack of systems and activities that limit a company's success, but rather the scarcity of what it calls "higher capacity leaders" and the direct relationship between leader mindset development and the realization of complex sustainability outcomes. "Mindsets," explains Avastone, refers to "interior patterns of mind, or frames of reference, from which individuals see sustainability and its importance."
Examining mindsets fills a critical gap in understanding what makes some individuals and corporations sustainability leaders. As an increasing number of companies engage in an increasing number of environmental and socially responsible practices, we're beginning to see progress, however incremental, and the complexity of sustainability issues is becoming clearer. But, notes Avastone:
Missing, however, is a key dimension of the conversation that exists below the radar for most organizations. Few are focusing on the influence of patterns of the mind, which shape our capacity to understand the world and allow us to take effective action in support of it. Mindsets, the nature of their development, and the headway gained through the expansion of consciousness, are often overlooked in the larger sustainability discussion. While the myriad of shapes and forms of sustainability activity are under study, the acknowledgement of interior mindset development and its significance deserves a closer look.
The report offers several frameworks for examining corporate sustainability and discerning what is being done sustainability-wise by some of the best-known companies worldwide, and what can be learned from them. It also contextualizes their progress by connecting it to "the bigger picture of planetary limits and ecological overshoot."
Along the way, Avastone details the success factors critical to the ten surveyed companies' sustainability progress. Its findings demonstrate that, while technical and business systems may be necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves as drivers of sustainability success; subjective aspects like culture, shared values, and guiding principles are equally important.
The framework used in the study to assess company progress on their sustainability journeys is based upon the "Corporate Responsibility Gearbox" created by the U.K. consultancy SustainAbility, which describes the different approaches or "gears" that companies can take to corporate responsibility. Higher gears are associated with more substantive and systematic progress. Avastone describes the gears thusly:
- 1.0 Comply — The business case for sustainability is perceived with limited — if any — acknowledgment of wider societal issues.
- 2.0 Volunteer — The business acknowledges the sustainability agenda as legitimate and one requiring constructive responses.
- 3.0 Partner — It views "sustainability done well" as possible only with other players.
- 4.0 Integrate — Sustainability becomes increasingly strategic and integrated as the business links its competitive advantage and value creation to wider societal expectations.
- 5.0 Redesign — The business contributes to shifts in systems that root out underlying causes of non-sustainability. New opportunities are envisioned and realized through new paradigms.
"The 21st-century global landscape calls for leaders with mindsets that view all five gears of sustainability as relevant to the business, not simply the gears that are obviously required to move the business forward," says McEwen.
As I said, it can be a bit abstract, and some of this may be harder to access for those not steeped in organizational development and systems thinking. But that helps to underscore the point: We need more leaders to be steeped in such disciplines in order to move our organizations in the directions they need to go to adapt and thrive in the coming years.
We believe that as human beings, organizationally and individually, we are at a juncture that offers tremendous opportunity despite the complexity and challenges we face. Yet new manifestations of leadership are required. The fundamental nature of who we are as human beings offers opportunity for expanding our realities, our identities, and our worldviews.
This report seems to provide a good first step to help companies and their leaders get in gear.