Leading through change

Businesses have given reluctant nods to the climate crisis for a while now, often in the name of generating some good PR. And for a time, it has been enough to look like you’re doing something. But the rules to this game are shifting. And learning to truly lead through change is more important than ever.

Some businesses have already taken some positive steps; an independent report from EcoAct reveals that in the UK, FTSE 100 businesses account for 50% of the most sustainable companies. Those top businesses rated high for their reporting, measurement, strategy and innovation. Companies such as Marks and Spencer were singled out for introducing plastic-free produce and plastic take-back schemes. But despite this, EcoACT MD Stuart Lemmon still noted that “change is simply not happening fast enough.”

If that thought feels discouraging, it is because our thinking requires an upgrade. There is an opportunity right now to be part of a new wave of business, a new kind of leadership. Our response now will affect everything in years to come.

It’s a symptom of a wider problem

If some new product or initiative does not seem to advance the company’s stated values, many CEOs seek solace by distancing themselves. They rationalise that it’s really not their business to monitor how people use the products they offer to the world.” – Marc Benioff and Monica Langley, Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change.

However, every part of a company – its products, policies, people, its wider impact – tells a story about the health of the whole business. It’s no longer enough to only concern ourselves with the balance sheet. 

Much of the Western mindset is clipped by compartmentalisation. Whether we’re making divisions between home and work life, friends and colleagues, leaders and followers – our thinking bends towards separation.

Part of the reason we have found it easy as businesses, to ignore or feel powerless about the climate crisis, is that the problem has historically been siloed. Environmental concerns belong in their own category; a category with negative connotations and an unpleasant association with bad news and negative press coverage. And anyway, aren’t there plenty of charities, activists and politicians to sort out that sort of thing? We can quickly relegate climate issues to at best a secondary priority for our business, at worst off the radar completely. There are plenty of problems in the marketplace that we can solve, and so it feels legitimate to focus on those instead. 

However, if we get away from the traditional western mindset, remove the artificially imposed categories that separate climate from business, in order to look at the whole, we cannot think about our company without thinking about its impact – on its employees, on its customers and on the world it belongs to. Everything matters because we are an intrinsic part of it. 

We need a new stakeholder model

“One of Google’s mantras is to ‘10x’ anything they can lay their primary-coloured hands on, and Facebook’s internal rallying cry is to ‘move fast and break things’… the default assumption that big is good, and bigger is better, presents and ever increasing threat” – Sam Conniff Allende, Be More Pirate: How to Take on the World and Win

In Trailblazer, Marc Benioff outlines how Salesforce switched from a shareholder model to a stakeholder model – in which employees, customers, schools and the planet are placed alongside shareholders in their importance. The significant point is: they ended up being more successful as a result.

When we deprioritise important stakeholders in our business – whether it is the environment or something else, we will gradually lose our capacity to influence and lead. When was the last time anyone was thrilled to be a part of the Facebook community? But when we define success as success for all stakeholders, our influence will continue to grow. 

Leading through change will become the norm

“Change is coming, whether you like it or not” – Greta Thunberg, leading environmental activist

The changing nature of the world demands a change to the nature of our leadership. We cannot run our companies like we did 10 years ago. We have to become responsive to the now. 

If we’re going to do this in any meaningful way, it’s not enough to make some snap decisions, or add another sentence to our list of company values. That kind of change won’t last.

We have to ask better questions. To work out why we ourselves have felt powerless to leverage change. To dig deep into the operations of our businesses and discover what is working against us. To re-evaluate our culture so we can become responsive. If we do, we’ll become more successful leaders. And that success will belong to the many.

Stay attentive for our upcoming articles on Leading through Change in light of the climate crisis. And check out our Leading Through Change training to prepare yourself to handle the complexity of this essential shift.