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The Inside View

10 Minutes with Chris Coulter, GlobeScan

Three key drivers for leadership companies: pressure, perspective, people.

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business. At the practical level, how do leaders make change happen? Chris Coulter is CEO of GlobeScan, and over the past 20 years has worked with a wide array of companies and leaders on how to elevate their sustainability efforts. I think he may have seen it all. That is why I looked forward to interviewing him. He is also co-author of the recently published "All In: The Future of Business Leadership." I highly recommend it for both those new to the field and seasoned pros.

Bob Langert: GlobeScan studies the leaders, like Interface and Unilever, who set a high bar for others. Is the bar too high and intimidating for small and mid-sized companies?

Chris Coulter: It’s a great question. I think the latest estimate is that there are about 85,000 multinational companies on the planet. And millions and millions of businesses; small, medium, large. So, we’ve got a huge pool of organizations that can have impact for good or for ill.

There are probably really only about 50 companies that are doing sustainable business with any level of scale and true sophistication. But even those have a long way to go still. Mike Barry from Marks & Spencer, who we interviewed for the book, was very clear. He said, "I’m much more interested in the next 100,000 companies, however large they are, and having them go from bronze to silver rather than having another 10 M&Ss or 10 Unilevers."

Langert: Any ideas on how to get more companies to the silver level?

Coulter: If you think of a pyramid with that small number of leading companies at the very top, their role is to demonstrate that, "This is a good way of doing business. This is the future of business. You can make money and create a thriving corporate culture through this and create a better future." These leading companies can act as a showcase to the new generation of business people — "Here’s how you do it" — and help sustainable business cascade down the pyramid. And you can see that with startups and the excitement around the B Corp movement.

I think there’s also a role for any large company to really engage its supply chain. And that’s where you get tens of thousands of companies engaged. And work with them to pull them up towards these higher sustainability standards, help them build a business case and demonstrate the business case to them.

Langert: What would you advise Colleen, a young, aspiring sustainability professional that I know, who has now been given the role of starting a sustainability strategy from the ground floor? How do you begin?

Coulter: First of all, they should see this as a huge opportunity to start something from scratch. Because that gives you the ability to leapfrog and not go through some of the hard learning that lots of other sustainability professionals have gone through. And one of those learnings is: Connect the dots between purpose and your sustainability strategy, and make those things integrated right from the get-go rather than trying to force them into alignment after the fact.

Connect the dots between purpose and your sustainability strategy, and make those things integrated right from the get-go rather than trying to force them into alignment after the fact.
Having courage and conviction are fundamental aspects for success. If you don’t truly believe in sustainable business and push your organization to be bold and to capture the opportunities — because part of our observation is that when you’re half in, you don’t get the benefits and the rewards. And if you’re kind of half in, then we’re all in trouble, ultimately. So we need to go all in.

Lastly, they need to listen deeply as to the needs and concerns of key constituencies and understand how we can connect these to an effective sustainability strategy. It sounds simple, but it is difficult to execute.

What is the executive team thinking of? Where’s the strategy going? What do employees care about? What matters? Why do they show up? Why did they choose that company over another company? What are the opportunities? What do the stakeholders think about? What do they care about?

The other piece that I think is important is innovation. Hannah Jones at Nike equates sustainability to innovation. She doesn’t see any light between those two concepts and has demonstrated how leadership in sustainability can be driven through the lens of innovation.

Langert: Let me probe a little bit deeper to help the Colleens of the world, because I think there are many out there. Her marching orders are to start slow, work on low-hanging fruit, cost savings only. How can she move a cautious organization?

Coulter: The problem sometimes in trying to get people on board with sustainability or engage them or convince them is the timeframe. So, if we come into a conversation, and we say, "All right. So, next month you become sustainable and let’s do that and let’s see how that’s going to impact on your work as a manager or hitting your targets as a business." We know it doesn’t work that way. But once we’re able to get people to think five years, ideally 10 years, all of this makes complete sense.

So, anticipating where the world is going and what’s going to happen allows people to open up and see where the opportunities are. And some of those things end up being related to sustainability. I think describing and creating the future that the organization wants lines up pretty nicely, almost all the time, with sustainable development thinking.

Langert: So, Colleen should do both at the same time, the efficiencies, plus?

Coulter: Absolutely. So, low-hanging fruit, of course. I mean, why wouldn’t we do that? But if you’re Colleen, you should also say, "We can do something special here. And we have ambitions." No one wants to be a laggard, right?

And you showcase how competitive this is now and what a few competitors are doing, all of a sudden it becomes like, "Are we going to be leaders or not?”

Langert: How can we all help lead transformative change?

Coulter: We looked at all angles in "All In" to answer this question and every single company that became a recognized leader seemed to have three drivers.

One was pressure. There was some sort of external or internal context that put pressure on the organization. Walmart and Hurricane Katrina was a really big pressure point, combined with some of the reputational pressures they had on social issues and damaging Main Street.

The second one was people. That there is a person like a Colleen that needs to be a catalyst, sometimes a pain in the ass, sometimes just asking the tough questions and representing and pushing.

The third key was perspective where somehow you open people’s eyes up by either looking long-term, or by either bringing other stakeholders into the organization to explain their point-of-view and what they’re doing. That’s what happened at Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharma company. Lise Kingo shared that they had a real pressure point with genetically modified enzymes and how an NGO campaign rose up against them. What they did was bring in stakeholders to sit down and talk and talk and talk.

And from that, they changed their perspective on what their role in society was and how to be successful. So, that’s the job I think of a sustainability lead, if you’re in a small company or big company: How do you prepare the organization for the upcoming future? And that’s a big, big task.

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