I’ve been asked the question: “Is sustainability sustainable?”
As the leader of a technology and media company, please ask me a different question: “How will you consistently grow your bottom line while innovating ways to incorporate sustainability into all possible aspects of your company?” Herein lies the challenge.
We, as leaders, face growing complexity. We make difficult choices daily. One easy decision we can make is to ignore the call of sustainability in its many forms – economic, environmental, and social – but we do this to our detriment.
Or we choose to embrace sustainability, knowing that doing so will require tradeoffs that we are not used to making and will test our current knowledge and capabilities. Despite the challenge, we do this to reflect the values of our internal and external customers. We tackle difficult (and sometimes controversial) issues for the benefits to our corporate culture, shareholders, and communities.
When everything changes, leadership must too
Watching a single episode of Mad Men with its first season notionally set in 1960 demonstrates how dramatically the American workplace has changed in the past 60 years. Now think of how different our workplaces are from early 2020. It is incredible how the pace of change is accelerating. Disruption is our new normal.
As leaders, we must get ahead of the tectonic shifts in technology and what I term JEDI – Justice, Environment, Diversity, Inclusion – to keep our companies alive and functioning effectively. In a study on organisational conformity published in the Harvard Business Review, HBS professor Francesca Gino found that 74 per cent of 2,000 employees surveyed responded that their senior leaders either occasionally (32 per cent) or never (42 per cent) challenge the status quo or encourage out-of the-box thinking. Taking these numbers literally, only one-quarter of leaders are proactively working to evolve their organisations.
Now is a dangerous time to play it safe. Deprioritising the need to build strong, sustainable organisations will prove risky to our businesses and viability as senior executives. Here are initial steps we can take to embrace sustainable practices in our companies.
Understand the demographical impacts ahead
In less than three years, more than 75 per cent of our global workforce will be employees from the gen Z (born 1996 to 2010) and millennial (born 1980 to 1995) generations. There will also be more women than men in the workforce. The oldest of the gen Z have turned 25, and the oldest of the millennials have crossed into their 40s. Bank of America predicts that gen Z will be the most disruptive generation ever.
These employees are changing workplace dynamics. Their impact will intensify as their numbers grow. They seek employment with companies that support their needs for purpose, connection, flexibility, expression, validation, and shared values. Additionally, they will invest the time to research companies that reflect their ethos in choosing where to spend their dollars on products and services needed.
Sustainability is here for good
The need to embed sustainable practices into all aspects of our daily business is not a fad. Is sustainability sustainable? Yes, and our dictate is to find how to make it work. New, smaller, and more adaptable companies will have an advantage as they can design their organisations with sustainable practices from the ground up. More established, larger companies will need to rethink structures, processes, and talent for retrofitting.
Also, job seekers have options – and want to work for companies that mirror and amplify their values. If we ignore the need to incorporate sustainable practices in our organisations, we place ourselves at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining the quality employees we seek. In time, embracing JEDI practices in the workplace will become a non-negotiable versus a differentiator as younger millennials and gen Z employees connect with these issues more than any cohort in history.
At the moment, we may be heading into a recession. The balance could shift soon to employers having ascendancy. But the next time we return to an employee market, I expect we will see a seismic shift in the demands of the people we wish to hire. Implementing sustainable practices now is a critical aspect of future-proofing our businesses.
Opening our minds, opening our ears, opening ourselves to new ways
As executives, we must evolve our approach to leadership to remain effective in this time of immense disruption. This need prompted me to write Chase Greatness: Enlightened Leadership for the Next Generation of Disruption. With increased numbers of boomers retiring, traditional work practices such as conventional work weeks, standard working hours and everyday in-office presence are being questioned – and often updated or rejected.
This transition is not always easy, especially for those of us who grew up in this system. How can we learn new tricks when the old ones have worked for us? The answer is openness. Opening our minds, opening our ears, and opening ourselves to new ways of operating.
In my book, I shared how one US President opened his door to constituents for sometimes more than four hours a day. By engaging regular people frequently, Abraham Lincoln stayed grounded in what they needed. We can learn from his example. Listening is a powerful way to open our minds and see other possibilities. Listening helps us become more thoughtful and insightful leaders, engaging our customers, internal and external, to learn what matters most to them. Listening aids us in seeing and doing things differently – when we are willing to be leaders of change.
Among American companies, we can also learn from many inspiring examples of how others are incorporating facets of sustainability into their businesses. We can study their challenges, wins, and impacts. And if not American, we can look to international companies that have intentionally implemented sustainability, circularity and JEDI practices into their businesses – and have done so with benefit to their bottom lines.
As executives, the way ahead for us is not easy. More change is coming. Within our companies, change must start at the top, and we must embrace our roles as change agents inside and outside of our companies. We are not ones to shy away from consequential challenges.
What we may likely find is that, in the longer-term, the incorporation of sustainability practices into daily business will bring us increased job satisfaction, effectiveness, and profitability. Sooner is better than later, and instead of questioning if sustainability is sustainable, let’s ask ourselves how we will innovate and implement economic, environmental, and social sustainability measures while growing our bottom lines.