How to turn any leader into a sustainability leader

Sustainability goals are nothing without a support system behind them, and that means strong, top-level leadership.

But not just any executive automatically can switch over to being a sustainability leader; that requires its own set of skills and perspectives.

"One of the big challenges is that sustainability is typically framed as a set of disparate problems," said George Basile, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, during a GreenBiz webcast Tuesday. "It doesn't allow business leaders to be effective."

Instead, companies need to look at sustainability issues as a set of leadership challenges such as how to make better decisions, pursue innovation or seek new markets, Basile said.

And to be truly effective, leaders need to go beyond what Basile called "transactional leadership." They must comply with laws, make the business case for actions and simply get things done using current tools, in addition to developing transformational leadership skills.

"Leaders need to be able to inspire ... to be able to bring people along with them," he said. Those skills are needed to make sustainability a core strategy and to help a company think about what it can do to improve society and the world.

"It is something you can learn," Basile said. "Not everyone is going to be exceptional at all aspects of transformational leadership. What you can do is build on your strengths, understand your needs and you can build teams around you that bring all of these skills to the table."

Dell is one company that saw its mission and strategy change as it got more involved in sustainability issues. It initially started off with an internal plan to be "the world's greenest IT company," said Bruno Sarda, Dell's director of global sustainability operations.

"As we evolved through this process, it became, 'How do we actually leverage what we do for a living? How do we help our customers address their sustainability challenges?'"

Dell now follows its "Powering the Possible" commitment to put technology to work in a way that does the most good for people and the planet. Sarda said Dell got there through these six main steps:

1. Vision: Asking the big questions about what kind of future you want and what stories you want to be able to tell.

2. Strategy: A plan for pursuing that vision, focusing on what needs to be done.

3. Goals: Specific achievements you'll target.

4. Plans: Setting baselines, key performance indicators, metrics, roadmaps and other factors needed to work toward goals.

5. Execute: Building strong governance, celebrating early wins and adapting to changing conditions.

6. Communication: Staying in touch with all audiences -- board of directors, management team, employees, suppliers, regulators, customers -- about projects and goals by communicating what is going on and also listening to what they have to say.

In addition to viewing sustainability leadership as a specific way of leading, you can look at it much like running a political campaign, said Cindy Drucker, executive vice president of global sustainability and social impact at public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

"There is no one-size-fits-all model. Leadership requires a tailored approach," she said, "It's about influence and persuasion and vision ... and it's a challenge."

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