Chapter 4: Follow the Leaders

How to Do What the Embracers Do

It is not surprising that most companies (all but the 3.5% of respondents who qualified as true sustainability skeptics) believe sustainability will be necessary to be competitive in the future and so see the need to accelerate their adoption of sustainability-driven management. But what does that mean, exactly? How can it be done? What are the high-leverage tactics and strategies that will transform the way an organization competes on sustainability?

Our study suggests that the behaviors and experiences of the embracers may provide a starting point. If the embracers are in the vanguard and present a picture of what management increasingly will look like as businesses turn to sustainability for competitive advantage, they also portray the early-stage steps that any company could take to advance along that path. What do the high-performing embracers do that other organizations might benefit from adopting?

In our study, along with identifying who the embracers are, we discovered seven practices that typical embracers share. What do embracers do? They:

1. Move early — even if information is incomplete. First, they tend to be bold, see the importance of being an early mover and be prepared to accept that they need to act before they necessarily have all the answers. Business leaders we interviewed tend to agree. “Much of what you do in business can’t be reduced simply to a formula or to a financial return calculation,” says Brian Walker, CEO of Herman Miller. Many decisions, he says, “require a bit of instinct, a gut feeling for where you’re ultimately trying to go. It can’t be reduced to simply a piece of paper.” Duke Energy’s Roberta Bowman sees sustainability-driven management as a journey, in which different businesses are at different stages. “It is an evolutionary process, and companies go through stages of growth in adapting sustainability to their business,” she says. “Even within a complex company, we are starting at different places, we are evolving in different ways with our approach to sustainability.”

Embracers are not paralyzed by ambiguity, and instead see action as a way to generate data, uncover new options and develop evidence iteratively that makes decision making increasingly effective. Movement diminishes uncertainty.

2. Balance broad, long-term vision with projects offering concrete, near-term “wins.” Leading companies are striking a balance between an overarching vision and being specific about the areas where they can gain competitive advantage.

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