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Seven Questions to Focus Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability leadership is a challenging issue I’ve seen crop up in a variety of situations recently, including:

  • Lower-level employees on a volunteer green team, trying to steer their companies down a greener path
  • Newly appointed Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) charged with the momentous task of integrating sustainability into the C-Suite
  • Sustainability consultants that have buy-in from the client’s leadership, but are struggling to push it down into individual departments

In many cases, the people involved are facing a leadership crisis. And as a result they aren’t clear about their role, able to generate momentum, or equipped to get others on board. Sometimes they are spinning their wheels, other times they are bulldozing their colleagues. They might be all talk and no action, or “all action” without an overarching story to tie everything together into a larger mission.  The list of symptoms can be endless and exhausting.

I was delighted, therefore, to come across, “7 Practical Questions That Will Multiply Your Influence.” David Dye, founder and President of Trailblaze, Inc., argues that the stuff of leadership, “has nothing to do with the title that comes after your name or power to force people to act. It has everything to do with what is in your heart.”

Touchy-feely sentiment aside, his seven questions resonated with me from the perspective of the sustainability leadership crisis. I’ve listed them below, along with my thoughts on each question’s pertinence to sustainability leadership. I hope that it helps to spark something in all the current and future sustainability leaders out there!

1) What do you really want?

“In the middle of a leadership crisis, nothing provides clarity like this question. What do you want to happen as a result of your leadership in this situation? Sometimes you’ll find that you’ve been acting from an entirely different set of motivations than what it is you want deep down, where it matters.”

For Sustainability Leaders: Sustainability is a cross-departmental, cross-functional, cross-issue, cross-stakeholder endeavor – and the truth is that you can’t please everyone all the time. Be clear about what YOU really want out of the “sustainability leader” role. Is it to radically transform the company? Inspire the CEO? Show up the CFO? Execute the plan and make your targets? Show that going green can be profitable? Use this position as a stepping stone to another job? Be clear, specific, and honest with yourself.

2) Do you know (and are you working out of) your values and personal mission?

“Self leadership begins when you know your own values and understand your purpose – what make your heart sing and come alive in the universe. When you work from this energy, it’s naturally attractive to like-minded team members and you motivate almost without knowing it. If you haven’t done this work, I strongly encourage you to find a coach or mentor who can help you explore what matters most.”

For Sustainability Leaders: Think beyond sustainability for a minute: what makes you tick? Do you love to collaborate, and work best in a meeting or team environment? Or do you love to be alone in a room, running the numbers a dozen ways to figure out the best way to optimize a process? Are you a voracious reader who thrives on big ideas? Or are you an “on the ground” details player? Understanding your values, working style, and motivation will help clarify your leadership style.

3) Are you choosing problems or trying to avoid problems?

“Solving problems is central to meaningful leadership, but many leaders fall into a trap of trying to avoid problems. We don’t get to choose whether or not we’ll have problems … but often we DO get to choose which set of problems we’ll have. Effective leaders don’t spend time trying to avoid problems. Rather, they put their energy into working on the right set of problems – the ones that get them closer to their vision. For example: Do you want the discomfort of learning how to address poor performance or do you want the discomfort of a team with poor morale and worse results? Do you prefer the pain of changing your strategy or the pain of discovering your team is no longer relevant? Do you risk vulnerability and apologize for mistakes or do you avoid taking blame and lose credibility?”

For Sustainability Leaders: This is a crucial lesson that we need to learn over and over. Because sustainability is a complex issue, we can tackle it through a variety of lenses – and thus choose our problem set. Do you prefer to focus on pushing a more radical sustainability strategy and risk making no substantive progress for months, or focus on smaller, incremental steps that may not really change “business as usual”? Do you want to risk C-suite ire by pushing for ground-up employee engagement, or risk alienating lower-level employees by pushing a top-down sustainability plan? Each choice has pros and cons, so be thoughtful about which problems you choose.

4) Do you really want things to get better?

“In question #1, you looked at what you really want, deep down. Now it’s time to look at the cost. If you’re going to change things, it’s going to include risk, discomfort, being misunderstood, sacrificing other goals, etc. Are you willing to accept the consequences of pursuing your vision? If not, you can’t possibly expect your team to come along with you.”

For Sustainability Leaders: If you push for a radical sustainability agenda, you may find yourself stalemated (or worse, fired) for being too aggressive. If you move more slowly, you may look back in 10 years and realize you haven’t accomplished much. Either way there are consequences for your leadership style, both for yourself and for the organization you are leading. Can you identify the risks you face as a result of your sustainability leadership? Are they acceptable? If not, what do you need to change?

5) Are you working for your team or yourself?

“Time to take a hard look in the mirror … no one will truly know the answer to this one but you. When your decisions are in your heart and your head, before you’ve given them a voice … are you filtering them through what’s best for you or best for your team? Are you saying “I” … or “we”? It’s okay to include your own well-being in your decisions (you are one of the team after all!), but if your team isn’t at the core of your leadership decisions, your credibility will quickly erode.”

For Sustainability Leaders: I’d expand this question to include: whose sustainability are you working for? Is it your own (including having a job that pays the mortgage), your organization (including being profitable and competitive), or the world (including a radical transformation of our economy and social structure to account for natural and social boundaries inherent in a sustainable system). These goals aren’t totally either/or, but there are often trade-offs that need to be considered. For example, a sustainability consultant needs to consider whether they are working themselves out of a job by helping companies set up sustainability programs. (I believe that there will always be a role for sustainability consultants, but that’s another article altogether.) Sometimes, pursuing a radical sustainability agenda will NOT be in the best interest of a company – rather, a more strategic, leading-but-not-sticking-your-neck-out-too-far approach is best. Be cognizant of the trade-offs of your sustainability leadership approach. You’ll need to be able to address them with your colleagues.

6) What can I do to bring about the results I want to see?

“I love this one: it moves us from victim to leader. When you find yourself frustrated at circumstances, upset that people “just don’t get it,” or discouraged that things didn’t go as you hoped, you’ve got a choice: Bemoan the unfairness of the universe (which inspires no one!). Or look at the situation and see where you can take action. Just asking the question completely reframes the situation and can transform a gloomy attitude in seconds.”

For Sustainability Leaders: This is a great question when you find yourself in a stalemate, frustrated by your lack of sustainability progress, or thwarted by a system that doesn’t seem to be moving in step with your vision. Take a different approach and ask yourself: what three actions can I do today to move the ball forward? Maybe it’s scheduling a meeting with your boss to discuss revamping your task list. Maybe it’s buying the latest sustainability book to get inspired. Or maybe it’s taking a day off to recharge your batteries.

7) Are my people better off as a result of their time with me?

“This is what James Hunter calls “the ultimate leadership test.” If the answer is yes, keep going. If the answer is no, examine the reasons why. Do you need to improve your skills? Do you need to wrestle with some of the earlier questions on the list?”

For Sustainability Leaders: Sustainability isn’t just about reducing your organization’s carbon footprint or finding more eco-friendly packaging. At the end of the day, sustainability leadership is about people: are they engaged? Do they share a common vision of what the future looks like? Can they see their own individual role in the journey? Your job as a sustainability leader is to help people say yes to sustainability. So, how are you doing?

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter.

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One thought on “Seven Questions to Focus Sustainability Leadership

  1. You did a great job of adapting these points to sustainability leadership – especially #5. All too often I see personal agendas driving implementation decisions rather than development of measured, strategic, goal oriented programs.

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