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Staying true to purpose: how individuals can drive transformative change in business and beyond

31 July 2019 – Following the launch of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership's new Centres to accelerate the transformation to a sustainable economy, Alice Spencer reflects on her experiences delivering executive education programmes for senior leaders tasked with driving these transformations.

Our clients, who come from a wide range of organisations in different sectors and geographies, have moved from asking for executive education programmes that help them understand what sustainability means to the business, to those that equip them with the knowledge and capabilities to act, and act swiftly.

For many years, our clients talked of supporting the transition to a more sustainable economy; now we hear them speak of the business transformation required.

Whether it is consumers, regulators, investors, market or supply chain disruptions, or an increasingly selective workforce demanding employers do more, businesses are feeling the tide turn towards sustainability as core to long-term business success rather than a ‘nice to have’. This presents a huge responsibility and opportunity for leaders to challenge their existing operating structures and cultures – even their fundamental purpose and value proposition – and lengthen their stride into relatively unknown ways of doing business.

Building upon Sue Garrard’s insider insights from Unilever and 10 lessons for embedding sustainability across a business, I will offer a perspective from the outside of business, looking in – at the trends materialising in our executive education engagements and some recommendations for individuals to be impactful agents of change. 

Learning to surf and making waves

In a time when large companies have a greater revenue than many countries, business has extraordinary influence and capacity to make waves across supply chains and markets.

As author Steve Denning said in an article for Forbes, ‘The human race didn’t succeed in handling big challenges in the past by upgrading yesterday’s technologies or passing laws telling people to make do with less. The Internet didn’t emerge from improving the dial-up phone or regulating phone calls. The electric light bulb didn’t appear from efforts to develop better candles or telling people to use less light. The automobile didn’t arrive by trying to breed faster horses. The human race solved big problems through innovation that led to radically new technical solutions that changed everything.’

If you are in a sector not experiencing swelling surf conditions, these are likely forecast, so get positioned. Businesses that hold steadfast to a clear purpose to society are likely to be well-placed to generate and ride waves with style. For example IKEA became competitive providers of solar panels and home battery kits and are taking a stance and action on food and nutrition – significant departures from flat pack furniture but strategies that certainly deliver on their purpose to ‘provide better everyday lives for the many people’.

Change is messy so anticipate turbulence. Ideally, factors will align to make change possible: customers will demand it, the market will allow it, investors will be supportive of it, regulation will enable it and the organisation will be positioned to make the most of it. But realistically these factors won’t all neatly align. Your move will require navigation of competing tensions, uncertainty about what will prevail as a winning strategy, and confidence in the belief that ‘do nothing’ may be the riskiest strategy of all. 

So when is the right time to jump, and into what? Businesses I work with ask, “What is the next plastics?” It could be regenerative agriculture and biodiversity restoration; the evolution of the plastics conversation to address waste in society from fast fashion, to better understanding materials we use and being circular by design; or perhaps, more fundamentally, to radically dematerialise our consumption. Without the answers, leaders must step into the unknown and take a role in shaping the future they want to be a part of rather than wiping out in the waves being generated around them. 

Being more than woke

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer outlined that societies are looking to business to lead on global challenges such as environmental protection and social issues, with business leaders expected to take a central role in driving change. Trusted businesses will be those that commit to a clear position and the ambition to lead from the front.

This comes at a time when ‘woke capitalism’ sees companies becoming activist, whether it is an ice cream company taking a position on refugees or a razor company having a voice on the #metoo movement. But your campaigns have to align with and authentically reflect your fundamental purpose and values. Having a meaningful impact requires, as Zoë Arden points out, moving from storytelling to story-doing. This means a change of mind-set that runs deeper than high profile campaigns, starts with purpose and capitalises on this through story telling about the most material, as opposed to most popular or trending, impacts, risks and opportunities. 

"Story-doing organisations understand they have a quest, a higher purpose in the world and convey their narrative through innovative action."

Zoë Arden, CISL Fellow

Clients increasingly ask for sessions relating to comprehensive approaches to measuring impact and engaging openly with stakeholders on their progress and strategies. They are increasingly aware of the value of acknowledging and quantifying all of their dependencies and impacts – not just those that provide easy wins and good news stories. 

Calling all elephants 

"Traditional leadership frameworks and approaches do not yet acknowledge global challenges and do not equip leaders to navigate them"

Rewiring Leadership, CISL

We recently delivered a programme for leaders from a major international bank, supporting them to develop new client strategies and propositions to accelerate sustainable business. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm about potential opportunities in transition sectors, yet the most powerful moment was when a participant acknowledged the elephant in the room: we are commercially addicted to financing fossil fuels. Giving this challenge airtime meant they could avoid a narrow focus on small-scale innovations and have a more substantive discussion about challenging their clients and engaging peers and regulators to accelerate the transition away from financing fossil fuels.

Critical to this is creating the right context and safe space, providing credible evidence of the unsustainability of business as usual, and equipping and empowering people to ask the right questions. Does our product or service have a role in a sustainable future? Are we really creating fair value for all stakeholders or are we prioritising the demands of some over the interests of others? Are we taking full responsibility for our negative impacts?

Leaders are often expected to have all of the answers, but admitting you don’t and asking the right questions ensures you have the right conversations and enables you to get to better answers. 

Bottoms up!

"Delivering the future we want will require organisations to cultivate leadership at all levels, and to embrace diverse and complementary strengths and approaches. No individual leader will possess all desirable capabilities."

Rewiring Leadership,CISL

Sustainability champions within a business often work tirelessly towards changes of practice and culture then find progress stalls because of lack of strategic alignment, funding and resources from decision makers. We also see senior leaders make commitments to be more ambitious but intentions falter when they realise that they do not have the groundswell of an innovative team culture to generate new ideas, or practical things like incentives to reward staff to take action and implement change.

Change needs to be top down and bottom up. We need top down leadership to set goals, embed ambition in strategy and ensure there is ownership, accountability and resources. But we also need to unlock bottom up innovation and entrepreneurship which requires people collaborating in new ways across the business to rethink processes, products and even business models.

Whether they identify as Ambassadors, Pioneers, Change Agents or Envoys, we are increasingly working with targeted groups of people from across organisations as part of multiple cohorts who take responsibility for generating ideas and gaining buy-in to improve likelihood of implementation. Finding people on your wavelength helps and some participants discover they are ‘pushing on an open door’ in connecting with others that share transformative ambitions too. 

Being contagious and optimistic

"If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near."

Jack Welsh, former Chairman and CEO, General Electric

Influencing change within and beyond organisations doesn’t happen by overwhelming people with complex science and seemingly insurmountable challenges so they act out of guilt and fear in hope the problems will go away. Change happens when people see a better way of doing things and can visualise what success looks like to them in their role and for their organisation.

Every journey starts with a first step and there is a lot to be said for getting on and making a start, even with small yet scalable activities that get people’s attention. But it is important to be strategic and think big even when you are acting small. One client we work with decided to focus on a single product and dedicated time to finding new ways to produce it. The result was iconic and something they could talk about confidently with their customers as their vision for the future of the company, designed with end of use in mind from the onset rather than passing the problem on to the user. To ensure our wave-ready successes can be replicated and scaled, they have to be contagious and therefore transmitted with effective communication.

Often overlooked as ‘soft skills’, incorporating good communication and storytelling techniques to capture minds and hearts is a central function of many programmes we deliver. To make a compelling case, you need to play to a multitude of different human drivers so your communications approach should understand the audience and play to their interests. In short – communicate the heck out of whatever it is you are doing. 

Staying sane and getting out of your lane

The majority of people are not trying to do the wrong thing. We have inherited business structures that base decision-making on the assumption that stable societies and nature are unlimited and free. This is at a time when we have more access to information than ever before, so we are watching a future unfold that we do not want but feel restricted in our abilities to do much about it. That can be really demoralising. As can living with a legacy of poor decisions, writing this as I am on the hottest day Cambridge and perhaps the UK has ever seen at a sweltering 38.7C.

Knowledge is supposed to be power, but it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. It is important to acknowledge evidence that climate grief and other mental health issues stem from knowing more about the world, which is impossible to un-know when you are aware of the magnitude and pace of change. It is ok not to be ok. 

Being part of the solution can be energising and something everyone across the organisation has in common. It allows you to be curious, to peer into different areas of the business and not be limited to the space defined for you. Transformative change requires us to challenge boundaries and reinvent the way we work, and the way we work together.

Transformation needs to be seismic. Our network of well-equipped executive education alumni knows that the task can be a real differentiating point in their careers if they learn to surf and make waves, stay true to purpose, keep the company of elephants, work top down and bottom up and maintain a contagious curiosity. Ultimately, they share the ambition of making the achievement of a sustainable future everyone’s job rather than the solitary pursuit of a select few.

Keep an eye on our future articles for further insights, and register now for the next Leadership Webinar: Purposeful Leadership.

About the author

Alice Spencer

Alice Spencer joined CISL in 2017 and is responsible for developing and delivering customised executive education programmes for senior leaders. She is also responsible for delivering CISL’s annual series of programmes in Australia and for the Cambridge Earth on Board programme, which equips non-executive directors to engage with strategic business decisions to align sustainability and profitability.

Her areas of interest and expertise include sustainability in resource intensive industries including agriculture and mining; the future of land use and management as we transition to low carbon economies; sustainable finance from public and private sector perspectives; entrepreneurship and innovation; stakeholder engagement.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.