Does sustainability need a new competitive approach?

Last week, I was invited to become a LinkedIn author, something GreenBiz executive editor and chairman Joel Makower has been since early last year. My first two posts touched on sustainability, but focused on the future of business. I was pleasantly surprised by the pace and size of view counts for each post. So I thought the time had come to submit a post on climate change, especially given the timing of the launch of the latest IPCC findings, the proximity to Earth Day and the publication of my Harvard Business Review article on climate change checklists for businesses.

I was wrong.

In particular, I was wrong about the level of interest in sustainability among the LinkedIn community. Within one hour of my post's launch, it was viewed by only 15 people. Within three hours, that number had "swelled" to 32 people. I pulled the post five hours later. By comparison, my first post with a business focus received 1,200 views within the first nine hours, while my second had over 5,000.

The 'Trojan Horse' approach to sustainability

Small sample size aside, a trend is emerging among senior executives and other business leaders, and it boils down to this: "If you plan to talk to me about sustainability, don't bother." When I shared my LinkedIn story, three prominent sustainability thought leaders shared this idea. C-level executives from several Global Fortune 500 companies who have been in attendance at four of my most recent talks revealed a similar perspective.

It seems as though there's a simple alchemy to landing paid speaking events or opportunities to talk with the C-suite: Be published in a top-tier media outlet and mention the words "leadership," "innovation" or "digital." Indeed, I recently was asked to give a talk to the senior team of a visible business services firm based on an article I wrote on the leadership skills needed for success in the collaborative economy.

Which leads to a thought: To get critical-mass attention on the topic of sustainability, perhaps the time has come to shift strategies in how we talk about it in the first place. Maybe we should de-emphasize the use of the word "sustainability" and focus on something larger, like the future of business. This would allow us to talk about the various significant imperatives that are re-shaping the business terrain, working the ethos of sustainability into a broader canvas. Think of it as the "Trojan Horse" strategy of advancing the sustainability agenda.

What's the right way forward?

I held a trial run of this approach last month at a talk for SAP on the future of business. The first part of my talk focused on the set of imperatives that are collectively changing the world, using "math" as a cipher term to talk about the vexing collection of environmental and social challenges we face. This then led to a discussion about the shift in the C-suite mandate from appeasing shareholders to appeasing stakeholders.

A corollary part of this discussion is how companies can equip social entrepreneurs to launch new businesses that both move the companies’ sustainability agendas forward and raise the standard of living in emerging countries. After five minutes on this topic, I moved to the next section of my talk: what the future of business looks like.

Afterward, six C-suite executives sought me out to talk about "the math problem" in the context of their innovation and growth challenges. In essence, I positioned sustainability as an integral part of the puzzle rather than a panacea for the world's ills.

Admittedly I'm torn about this approach. On the one hand, several companies want to run half-day white-boarding sessions with me on that "math problem." On the other hand, I feel like I encouraged these executives' desire to focus on non-sustainability related challenges — akin to giving the captain permission to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic to complete the day's work.

What do you think about this issue? Is it time to shift tactics on how we catalyze sustainability attention and action? And what are you finding that is working in your organizations?

Photo of Trojan Horse in Canakkale Square, Turkey by mg1408 via Shutterstock