Make Sustainability a Part of Your Overall Corporate Strategy
A One Minute Interview with Anastasia Kellermann, co-founder of 2LEAD4US, a Netherlands-based consultancy and training company (part of Blanchard International Netherlands) that challenges and equips leaders to integrate sustainability strategies into their organizations.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about the research that you are currently conducting?
A. Our research project has been focused on sustainability and what kind of leadership is necessary to integrate sustainability into companies. We started with this research in Holland and we are expanding it to other countries worldwide. We are looking to get a deeper insight into how companies are integrating sustainability into their day-to-day core business and what the role of leadership is in that process. We also wanted to identify best practices among some of the early adopters. Our goal is to use the information for publication in a future book with Ken Blanchard on sustainable leadership.
Q. When you use the term “sustainability,” what do you mean by that?
A. When I am talking about sustainability, I am referring to what I call the 4 Ps—Person, People, Planet, and Prosperity. In addition to environmental sustainability, I’m talking about all of the decisions people make that impact both their immediate environment and the environment far away. For example, if you buy a cup of coffee and it is made from fair trade then you are also having an impact on people who are in South America.
Another important aspect is what we call “prosperity.” And the distinction here is not only the profit of the organization in the short term but also the profit that we make in the long term. How can we take the current structure where we incentivize people “to make a really quick buck” and also take into account how that impacts the way that our organization is going to continue in the future?
Q. So what you’re talking about is how to create an organization that is socially responsible and that has a plan beyond just being in business for the short term.
A. Yes, if you look at business, you’ll see that no one really looks much farther than about five years. If we are able to look at least 10 years ahead then that already gives us a really different picture for the decisions that we make today. So, if we are able to look ahead 10 years, or 20 years, then we start making really different decisions. A lot of companies are not yet realizing that they will face huge talent shortages in a couple of years and that demographics are heavily influencing HR: aging/retiring workforce, lack of talent, Generation Y versus needs of older workers, etc. Some companies, however, have already adopted very smart workforce planning methods to address these challenges. Deloitte is one example. This is why we see a need for integrating sustainability in human resource management. And it is taking that perspective into account.
It’s true that you need to succeed in the short-term in order to even be able to get to the long term. But what we have done until now is focus just on the short-term, and not so much on what does that mean over a five-to-ten-year period.
Q. What motivated you to get started on this research project?
A. I’ve always been passionate about sustainability and I’ve been working on it for a long time. I have always wondered what triggers people to act sustainably, to take good care of the environment–or not? What causes us to make the decisions that we make, including what we choose to eat, how we clothe ourselves, and what kind of jobs that we take?
If we want to create a sustainable world where we are doing good for the environment, and for others, and in our own economic interest in both the short and long term, then how can we invite people to take a different role and to specifically take a different leadership role? That’s the basis behind the research: how can we trigger people to make that change so that they can think in terms of sustainability and not just focus on that short term?
I’ve always been looking for what kind of leadership is needed to make this change. I did a similar research project before in The Netherlands for 24 CEOs on sustainability. I wrote a book on it called The S Factor, A Personal Guide to Sustainable Leadership. And that is how this research started. From my original focus on the Netherlands, I wanted to see what is going on worldwide in terms of sustainability. Is it just a sort of “greenwashing” with a quick treatment in a sustainability report, or are companies actually integrating it into their day-to-day business? To what extent are they taking that longer-term perspective into account and translating it into their decision-making?
What drives certain companies and certain leaders to act sustainably while others do not? And we also wanted to find out, what are the success factors that make one leader do it, or what is in the system of the company that makes it possible? For example, if people are evaluated for taking sustainable decisions, then of course you’re going to get a different behavior within the company than if people are constantly evaluated on short-term decisions and don’t take the longer term into account.
We also wanted to get a picture of what kind of challenges companies are facing. I think that’s really relevant because a lot of companies are going through hard times during this economic crisis.
Q. So to summarize, you’re looking at the traits of leaders that adopt a sustainability mind-set, the factors that encourage a sustainability strategy, and the barriers that get in the way from organizations doing that.
A. Yes, and when we look at success factors we look at those different traits, behaviors, and mind-set which has a lot to do with leadership and then we’re also looking at what kind of systems you can put within your organization so that it makes it easier for that behavior to develop. Because you always have believers within organizations—those who believe in sustainability—along with a more skeptical group of people who need to be challenged to find new ways instead of doing things as usual.
We see a lot of similarity with change management in that you have a couple of people who really want to change and move on to something that has more to offer than the old system while there are always people who don’t want change and who want to keep things the way they have always been.
Put this against an economic background where we’re seeing so much happening around the world and companies are facing a lot of different factors coming into a play. So, there is the environmental issue, the economic issue, combined with what does the company want to do, and then of course all of the normal challenges with implementing any type of change within a company. And sustainability really asks you to fundamentally change a lot of things. We are using the research to identify the drivers for why companies would do this and the opportunities for these companies in the short and long term.
Q. What have you learned from the research project so far?
A. What we learned from the original Netherlands research is that the biggest drivers promoting sustainability are cost and efficiency, which is interesting. Most people would say that sustainability is more expensive, but among the companies we’ve worked with they see a lot of advantages in how sustainability can cut costs. For example, what we are all spending on energy bills could go down significantly if we are able to tap into alternative sources of energy—solar instead of oil, for example. So, that is a driver for a lot of people who maybe are not a believer in sustainability, but they are a believer in the bottom line.
What we’re also seeing is companies looking at sustainability as opportunities for new markets and new products. Look at the car industry, for example, and how much of that has been changed with the introduction of electric vehicles. It’s seen as a new market and it means investing. And you can see how all of the other car companies are now starting to follow the leaders to try and develop the best electric car that they can manufacture. We are seeing in China that they are moving towards sustainability, especially because of new markets and products.
That’s one of the surprises from the research. We originally thought that regulation might be the first reason why people choose to go on a path of sustainability, but I’ve found that the search for new markets is considered a bigger reason—at least in Holland—than regulations. Regulations are still a factor, but the new markets are even more of a trigger.
One other finding is that personal mission, among top leaders, but also among change agents in other parts of the organization, play a vital role. What we are seeing is people aligning their personal mission and finding a way to incorporate it into the sustainability story. People are also doing it for a certain sense of pride and the self esteem that comes from getting behind something you can be proud of.
Also being a preferred employer is another reason for a number of organizations to also embrace sustainability because you can get and attract highly qualified and motivated personnel—especially among some of the younger students that are coming from universities who are looking for a challenge. While they might not choose sustainability for purely idealistic motives, we are still seeing that some want to find some fulfillment in their work and sustainability can provide that fulfillment. It also gives them a challenge, something that they can get their teeth into, and to do things really differently than before. Also, the younger generation tends to be more conscious about social and environmental aspects and a better sense of work-life-balance. With regard to human resource management, we have found that these characteristics are addressed in companies that are frontrunners in sustainability and hence become preferred employers.
Q. Any final thoughts or advice for companies looking to integrate sustainability into their organization?
A. Align sustainability as much as possible with the core business and strategy of the organization and with the personal motivation of people. If you see sustainability as a side project, or as just as occasional volunteer work in the community, that is not really going to lead to sustainability being integrated within the organization. That is a great start, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the way that the organization does business. Sustainability is really asking us to think longer term and let it come back and impact what we are doing today instead of seeing it as something separate.
Would you like to learn more about this research project? You can contact Anastasia Kellermann at http://www.2lead4us.com You can also meet Anastasia at this year’s Blanchard Summit 2010 where she will be a featured speaker.