With layoffs, failing companies, collapsing economies, new competitors and emerging markets, one would have to be asleep to be unaware of the enormous contextual changes around the world — in society, technology and natural resources — and the challenges these present.
These challenges will only become more vexing unless learning leaders change how they do business. Of course, business strategy always has been about generating profits, and that cannot change. What can change is how people in an organization go about earning those profits. They have to move beyond the relentless pursuit of short-term gain toward long-term sustainability.
Sustainability in a business context means long-term profitability. It is not just about being green or saving the planet: it is about enabling men and women within an organization to create a new business strategy framework attuned to the world around them, one that is flexible enough to respond to change and focused on the long view. Unless companies take into account the massive changes happening in society and on the planet, short-term profits soon will disappear.
Organizations today have a choice: they can either innovate differently and win or innovate narrowly and lose. Today there are many examples of industries and organizations that did not look far enough ahead and did not innovate in a way that truly set them apart from their competitors or prepare them for what would come next. An organization must be built so that it is ready for change, whatever that change may be.
That is why chief learning officers should prepare themselves to be key candidates for the role of CEO. CLOs understand the single most important quality of a sustainable organization — engaged employees. An organization’s people are its most important renewable resource. Learning leaders can help future proof their organizations not just by giving people the skills they need to do jobs now but by engaging them, empowering them and giving them tools and skills to solve the challenges ahead. If more CEOs came from a learning background, organizations likely would look at the issue of sustainability differently.
Today an employee might not be the CEO, but he or she can influence changes in priorities and culture. Learning leaders can take action and jump-start small initiatives to listen more closely to other employees, customers and their broader networks. Further, they can educate senior leadership on what building a sustainable organization means and why it is critical for the organization’s long-term viability. Consider the following sustainability-boosting strategies.
Educate and inform: According to the World Commission on Environment and Sustainability, the narrow definition of sustainability or sustainable development is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To many, this means simply protecting the environment. But in recent years, sustainability has been recast as a broader concept encompassing the social, economic, environmental and cultural systems needed to sustain any organization. A sustainable organization, and similarly a sustainable person, is prepared to thrive today and tomorrow.
Learning professionals are well positioned to help get this message out within their organizations. They have influence with key stakeholders, understand the needs and preferences of the employees and have access to regular communication vehicles and social learning tools through which to reach employees on a consistent basis.
Help the organization identify its North Star goal: Whatever stage a company is in, it needs to establish North Star goals. A North Star goal is an optimistic, aspirational goal that ties business objectives to a higher purpose. North Star goals have these attributes:
• They address a global human challenge, a purpose larger than the company.
• They can be achieved in five to 15 years.
• They are inspirational.
• They connect to the core of the business.
• Every employee can act on them.
Companies as diverse as P&G, Hilton, Clorox and Starbucks have these goals. Setting them is a crucial first step for all CEOs and CLOs. Leaders have to project the right goals for change and development so they can help build employees’ capabilities around them — and in turn employees should be engaged to help drive those goals.
North Star goals are not short-term propositions, nor are they easy to achieve. But they have the potential to shape a positive leadership legacy. Learning leaders can play an integral role in helping their organizations overcome common hurdles that can halt execution of these goals. Consider the following examples:
• Toyota set a North Star goal to build a car that never crashes and clears the air as it drives. This North Star not only helped them develop the Prius, a category-busting innovation, it also helped them maintain internal confidence during the 2010 recall controversy in the United States.
• In October 2005, Walmart set three North Star goals for its global operations: first, to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy; second, to sell only sustainable products in its stores and third, to produce zero waste. When the company announced these goals, critics attacked them as promising the impossible. They still have a long way to go, but today few people are laughing at Walmart as its sustainability efforts have filtered down through its 60,000 supplier companies.
• Starbucks set a North Star goal in 2008 to make sure that every cup of coffee it sells is ethically sourced and another in 2010 to ensure that 100 percent of its cups are reusable or recyclable by 2015.
The key element in these goals for each of these companies is that they connect to the core of the business. Sustainability cannot be solely a philanthropic exercise.
Push for transparency: A company must first open itself up to greater transparency, engage all of its employees equally and embrace its network of suppliers, customers and community. Otherwise that company’s leaders will either come up with a truly unsustainable strategy or execute a decent strategy poorly.
For too long, weak managers have obscured information in order to maintain the appearance of their power. By bringing actionable metrics to line employees on issues from electricity use to waste to productivity, they can be empowered to improve their own behavior.
True sustainability cries out for innovative leadership, and it is not all going to come from the top. Everyone in an organization should be inspired to seek improvements, identify creative solutions, respond to change and create the future. Companies such as MethodHome, Patagonia and Clif Bar have a decentralized, bottom-up approach in which an entrepreneur created the company to complete a “get us to the moon” mission, hired people who cared about the mission and unleashed their talent and passion to figure out how to complete it.
One benefit of sustainability programs is that they create horizontal and vertical information flows, connecting employees across function and building social relationships that allow new collaborations to occur. GE began corporate treasure hunts in 2009, enlisting 40 to 50 GE employees to search facilities for energy-wasting activities. These efforts have saved millions of dollars in operating costs. GE has now taken these treasure hunts to their customers. To date, they have helped more than 15 organizations improve their performance, and in the process, these organizations have deepened their relationships with GE.
Redefine leadership development: A strategy for sustainability calls for a new kind of leader and corresponding leadership. Command and control leadership over many silos, no matter how efficient, will not work. To be profitable for the long term, a company must develop extraordinary connections to the world outside a company. Typically this means recognizing that natural resource strains are a looming challenge as the world’s demography evolves.
Although many core leadership capabilities certainly will remain, organizations need to make their leadership development frameworks more flexible. For example, organizations may need to integrate new capabilities such as cultural awareness, how to build business in emerging markets and sustainable development to their competency models. They also should consider introducing tools and technologies such as social collaboration features, simulations and embedded learning experiences at work — action learning projects — to better engage learners and support those in new geographies and from different cultures.
Leadership capabilities also need to be driven down deeper within organizations. A leadership development strategy has to address senior leaders through frontline managers in a cohesive, integrated way. As organizations consider the leadership capabilities they need in place, learning professionals must design programs for various levels of managers and leaders. These programs should develop skills in ways that are most appropriate for the different audiences. For example, executives who feel that growth in emerging markets is key to their organization’s competitive success will make capabilities related to this a priority. At the same time, that organization’s senior-level leader responsible for business development might learn the best approaches to build the alliances and networks needed to grow business in emerging markets, while a mid-level manager might focus on developing skills to manage virtual teams in those same areas. Everyone needs to be made ready for what lies ahead.
Start small: Employees at Saatchi & Saatchi work to inspire people to make the best choices for themselves and for the planet. Each person is encouraged to pursue one thing regularly. It can be anything from cycling to work or doing laundry with cold water. Employees call this DOT – do one thing. One person’s DOT may stand alone, but connect a billion DOTs together and a movement of change is created. At first some employees mocked the idea as unserious, but gradually people found that personal engagement produced corporate changes no one could have predicted. Today Saatchi & Saatchi offices from South Africa to Australia are attracting new clients who see the company’s sustainability efforts as a core differentiating factor.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects a world population of almost nine billion people by the year 2050. Natural resources from the atmosphere to the oceans are stretched thin by current consumption patterns around the globe. As demographic and resource changes accelerate, it is only going to become more obvious why a pursuit of sustainable business practices is necessary from every enterprise on the planet. The role of the chief learning officer must be to prepare employees for this changing world. Here are three things learning leaders can do today:
1. Share the news. Start regularly sending out articles about changes in society, technology and resources (STAR). A monthly STAR report will engage employees in the changes that will enter the organization.
2. Recruit volunteer leaders. A sustainability effort is only as good as the enthusiasm behind it. Bring together the most energized leaders in the organization for a roundtable discussion about the current state of sustainability efforts. Invite them to lead activities or solutions to identified needs.
3. Get the CEO to commit to a North Star goal or at least commit to begin a process. Without a North Star goal, any and all efforts will feel disconnected and scattered.
The sustainability movement is just beginning. Companies, and the learning leaders who help them run, have the chance to reinvent everything. The question is: What will you do?
Adam Werbach is the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi and author of Strategy for Sustainability. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.