Leading Sustainability: Look to the Future, Make Bold Choices and Don’t Go It Alone
This blog is provided by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank, co-founders of Read-the-Air and authors of a new book, “Leading Sustainability: The Path to Sustainable Business and How the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) Changed Everything.” It is a companion to their interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Leading Sustainability: The Path to Sustainable Business and SDGs that aired on Tuesday, January 5th, 2021. This article shares practical steps from their book to advance your business efforts to put sustainability at the core of your strategy.
The business world is at a fundamental crossroads. The age of the stakeholder is rapidly superseding that of the shareholder. More than just a buzzword, the idea of the stakeholder recognizes that companies have always existed as an inseparable part of the communities and business networks in which they operate, however vast and physically distant.
Contrary to what the shareholder model often implied, good business decisions have never really been driven purely by profit motives. It is becoming increasingly obvious that what is good for society—and thus, by definition, for the environment—is good for business. This new embrace of responsibility does not preclude the design of efficient, lucrative business models. In fact, when done properly, precisely the opposite is true: socially responsible and sustainable business decision-making opens up brand new, exciting, profitable—and, in all its meanings, sustainable—revenue streams.
Today’s reckoning is not purely an altruistic choice made by businesses; new demands from various civil society organizations and the consensus-driven initiatives of the United Nations have been shepherding along the changes required to make business operations sustainable for years. With the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the implementation of the Paris Agreement, these constituencies have outlined new expectations for not only how governments function, but also how businesses must function in a sustainable society.
The SDGs—more than 50 years in the making—provide a comprehensive framework for understanding all aspects of social, political, and business actions. They are powerful statements of human ambition for a fair, just and sustainable society. Many in the business and investing world today are calling them “A gift”, as the SDGs can provide us with a broader definition of sustainability and a framework to quickly and effectively guide businesses’ efforts to align their operations with the meaningful goals that society desires.
The successful businesses of tomorrow will be the ones that fully embrace sustainability today.
Almost two years ago, we set out to find and catalogue the practical steps that companies today must take to create the new sustainable business models they will need to survive in the year 2030. We interviewed more than 100 business leaders, investors, policy makers, NPOs, researchers and other changemakers, and researched a broad range of companies from across the world, of varying sizes and across multiple industries, that were taking practical steps to improve business practices and become more sustainable. Here’s some of the main takeaways that were collected for our new book “Leading Sustainably—The Path to Sustainable Business and How the SDGs Changed Everything.”
- Look to the future of your business—to achieve the best tomorrow, prepare today for the worst.
- Make changes to your strategies based on the big picture, not on the small problems (unless they are warning you about dangers arising in the big picture).
- The past created the world we live in today—its environmental crises and social unrest—but it also has been building the platform and the thinking that’s needed to move past these crises. That is, the SDGs, the Paris Agreement and a business world more focused on becoming sustainable for the long run.
- The business case is already there—the whole business environment is pushing for more sustainable models, from consumers to investors, employees to competitors. Catch up, keep the pace, set the speed or get pushed out of the way. And watch out, because a whole new generation of “mission-driven” companies have a head start already, having established themselves as fully aligned with society from the get-go. They are laser-focused on bringing fully sustainable innovations and business models to sectors that have struggled to do so on their own, and they are achieving remarkable societal and financial impact.
- Don’t get confused by the Alphabet soup of methodologies for measuring and managing impact—choose what looks best for you, try them out, see if they fit, and whether do or don’t, adjust, retry, expand, until you figure out what works for your company. Get started today.
- Capital managers, and even retail investors, believe that sustainability is the way forward, and they are going to talk to you about it. If you are aligned with them, they will provide you capital at a reasonable rate—if not, you will pay more or even be left empty-handed.
- Be systematic. Understand the steps that you as a business have to proceed through to achieve a sustainable business model. Apply smart managerial and leadership strategies to move through these steps. Make bold decisions. Engage the whole organization. Communicate your directives and the reasons. Build an “A team”. Pursue a multi-stakeholder approach. Be flexible, make assessments and adjust. Work with your customers. Consider outside acquisitions. And leverage the SDGs.
- You can’t do this alone. Bring your industry along for success and to ensure a fair playing field. Reach out to your industry associations, but also look to new partners, whether from civil society, international organizations, or cross industry. If a few key industries do this right—health and wellness, insurance, fashion, real estate, and tourism—we’ll all be in a better, more sustainable, place.
Before we close, two points bear repeating: For success leverage the SDGs— recognize their power to help and guide the organization and your teams; and be systematic to align your business planning and operations with sustainability principles.
Plus, remember this final, key piece to getting it done: You must bridge the knowledge gap—provide your teams with as many opportunities as possible to learn what they need to know to make sustainability-driven business decisions.
See more details about the important lessons from companies—in a range of industries—on how to achieve sustainability in our new book “Leading Sustainably”, available now from Routledge and Amazon.
To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music and iHeartRADIO. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Authors
Trista Bridges is a strategy and marketing expert with extensive experience across various geographies and sectors including consumer products, financial services, technology, and healthcare.
Donald Eubank is an experienced manager who has worked across the IT, finance, and media industries in Asia.
They advise businesses on sustainability and are co-founders of Read the Air, a coalition of strategy and operations professionals, and co-authors of “Leading Sustainably—The Path to Sustainable Business and How the SDGs Changed Everything” (Routledge).
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash