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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


25 January 2019 – CISL Fellow Zoë Arden discusses the power of personal experiences in igniting commitment towards meaningful change, and shares key steps individuals can take to identify issues and lead action towards a strong sustainability agenda within their organisation.

There’s an oft used phrase: ‘seeing is believing’. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the difficult job of connecting leaders to global challenges. According to the recent IPCC report, we have just 12 years in which to act to limit climate change catastrophe. To do this, we require high-impact leadership at all levels. But how do we accelerate that type of leadership? One way is through first-hand experience and experiential learning leadership programmes.

This week, a friend who leads sustainability for a global hospitality business called me to say triumphantly that she had got her ambitious plan passed by the Board with no changes. What was different? An influential Board member was just back from a family holiday in Bali. In nine days, she had not been able to swim in the ocean once because of the plastics pollution. She told the Board they had to do more to eradicate plastics from their supply chain – they had to do it now and fast. That personal experience had ignited her commitment to show greater leadership and positive impact as a business.

The enduring takeaway from last month’s climate conference in Poland was Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s three-minute short speech. "You only speak of green economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular… You are not mature enough to tell it like it is…even that burden you leave to us children." For many people, she cut through the complexity of the issue and forced us to think of our personal responsibility as parents and grandparents.

Finally, my ears pricked up in a recent Rewiring Leadership webinar when ex-Unilever exec Sue Garrard talked passionately about the importance of seeing is believing in getting employees on board with the Sustainable Living Plan: "The biggest changer is when you personally identify what needs to be solved." She gave the example of the ice cream team who spent two days in Madagascar with women vanilla growers. Just those two days created a shift from ‘we know that this is the right thing to do’, to ‘we are really committed to helping those women'.

These recent examples reminded me of stories I heard when conducting my Master’s research into the impact of experiential learning programmes on business leaders’ attitudes to sustainability. In this and subsequent research, I’ve seen evidence of shifts in leaders’ attitudes as a result of personal experiences which enabled them to see the world through fresh eyes. These shifts created the impetus, in some cases, for the business to embed more sustainable processes, products and services. For example, the global B2C company, that despite ambitious public commitments, could not get the Chief Procurement Officer on board until he spent two days with women coffee growers in Columbia and understood the impact of pricing on their ability to educate their children. 

How can experiential learning contribute to the high impact leadership we require if we are going to put an end to ‘business as usual’ – which is what is required to stabilise climate change? As we concluded in a recent CISL report, ‘Opening the eyes of employees to the changing context and global challenges can unlock innovation; challenge beliefs; correct misperceptions and unconscious bias; and shape organisational approaches.’ If you’re trying to drive change in your organisation, here are key features that can maximise the effectiveness of your experiential learning programmes:

  • Have a CEO or board member champion the programme.
  • Tell participants what they need to know in pre-briefings, not how to feel.
  • Pick delegates that are senior enough to take follow up action.
  • Incorporate multiple stakeholder perspectives and meet individuals personally impacted (eg customers, community members, farmers).
  • Set clear programme goals eg to drive innovation, add new market knowledge or better understand your role in solving a social or environmental issue.
  • Recognise that an immersive experience that takes participants out of their comfort zone (with care) will lead to deeper levels of learning and understanding. (Those familiar with Otto Scharmer’s Theory U will recognise the need to get to a state of ‘unlearning’ – the process of letting go of old beliefs and creating space for new ideas and co-creation.)
  • Provide examples of positive action taken by other businesses and share the benefits, like employee engagement.
  • Feature community leadership. The business is not alone. It needs to collaborate with others to create systems-level change.
  • Secure ownership of follow-up commitments within the business so that it becomes ‘the way we do things round here’.
  • Ensure the programme is not a one-off: put mechanisms in place to ensure the learnings stay fresh through peer support groups and ongoing courses.

As well as designing and/or contributing to experiential learning programmes, what can you do right now if you are a motivated individual who wants to strengthen your leadership impact? It is critical to put yourself in the shoes of others, expand your sphere of influence, be part of a learning community that wants to create change.

Well-designed online courses can also be an effective mechanism to meet that requirement. Over 150 aspiring and existing leaders from 40 countries participated in our inaugural High Impact Leadership (online) programme, for example. They learned from the experience, from interacting with their peers, as well as the course content and expert contributors.

Let’s deliver the change required with high-impact leadership. As Greta Thunberg said, let’s not leave this burden to our children.

Join our eight-week High Impact Leadership course to develop your own skills and perspectives as a High Impact Leader. Applications for the next presentation close on 5 February.


About the author

Zoe Arden

Zoë Arden is a CISL Fellow and convenor and head tutor of CISL’s High Impact Leadership online course. She is the co-author of an article entitled Making It Personal – Developing Sustainability Leaders in Business published recently in the journal Organisation and Environment based on her CISL Master's research. She is also the co-author of CISL’s report Building Leaders for Long-term Business Performance.

About the Master's

Accredited by the University of Cambridge, the part-time Master's in Sustainability Leadership is recognised as one of the leading courses globally.

Applications for 2016–2018 are open until Thursday 31 March 2016.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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