MT EXPERT: Want sustainability? Keep quiet

Businesses don't need visionary chief execs to be sustainable, argues Forum for the Future's Sally Uren. All you need is 'quiet leadership'.

by Sally Uren
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It’s official: the UN has decreed that it’s ‘95% certain’ that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950s. It’ll take ‘substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions’ to contain - let alone reverse - those changes.

Unfortunately, chief executives with a pioneering approach to sustainability remain a very small percentage of the total number at the helm of listed businesses on stock markets around the world. Go on, try it – make a mental list of the chief executives, such as Unilever’s Paul Polman and Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire, who are flying the flag for sustainability (give yourself a prize if you get to more than ten).

So, if you’re trying to push through the sustainability agenda but your CEO is ambivalent at best, or completely opposed at worst, don’t despair – all you need is a little bit of quiet leadership.

From working with FTSE 100 companies on sustainability since the early days, when leadership equated to a glossy Corporate Responsibility report, I’ve witnessed four decent styles of ‘quiet leadership’ which have a successfully transformed the way companies work to make them more environmentally responsible.

1. Just do it anyway

These are the savvy folk who deliberately keep what they’re up to under the radar until they can show a win. They use their budgets wisely, or if they don’t have one, influence those around them to encourage new and different uses for existing budgets. If this is your chosen approach, seek out someone fairly senior who has some sympathy for sustainability to give you ‘ground cover’.

2. ‘Naughty’ just do it anyway

See above, and add in a willingness to take more risks and engage in the odd spot of subterfuge, such as issuing a press release committing the business to stretching targets for carbon reduction, or a trial for a new sustainability product or service that has not been signed off. I’ve seen examples of both. Once these commitments hit the public domain, there need to be some obvious attempts to deliver them.

3. Breaking the mould

This approach is adopted by those who recognise the need for change, and are willing to be the first to show what this might look like. A classic example is the retail buyer who understands that sourcing sustainably requires wholesale change in procurement criteria. Breaking the mould requires conviction, charm and tenacity in equal measure.

4. Coalitions of the willing

It may be hard to get attention when yours is the only voice in the business calling for a change in working practices; but by forming a group of similar people from similar organisations, it can be much easier to get backing for new, more sustainable practice. This category of quiet leadership is perhaps the one with the greatest potential to change the wider system: by forming alliances and working across traditionally competitive boundaries, issues can be tackled that are often just too big to be bitten off by single organisations.

The four approaches above share common characteristics – personal conviction, passion, imagination, the ability to influence, and persistence.  And of course, ultimate success might rely on deploying all four approaches, either simultaneously or in succession.

- Sally Uren is chief executive of sustainability not-for-profit Forum for the Future

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