The Inside View

'Fast 10' sustainability leadership tips

I’ve been interested in leadership ever since I was turned down for a promotion in my mid-20s while at Baxter. I was flummoxed when I heard the HR lead tell me, “We see you more as a follower, a good soldier, not a leader.”

In retrospect, my views on leadership were naïve and narrow at the time. I deserved that feedback, and moved on to McDonald’s motivated to do better.

Working on the front lines of a very visible brand is filled with action: problems to solve; surprises — some interesting, some bad; rubbing shoulders with fascinating NGOs and business leaders; full of frustration at times; full of fulfillment so much of the time.

I was recently asked to address a Virginia Chamber of Commerce event on what sustainability leadership means for the future of business. As my experience is in fast food, here are my “Fast 10” Sustainability Leadership Tips.

1. Sustainability is not about 'doing good'

You can waste a lot of time chasing one dimension: what is good for society. Don’t forget that nothing is sustainable unless it brings business value, too.

This “shared value” philosophy really resonated with McDonald’s leadership. If and when we got pushback on developing our goals, I would always say: “Let’s only work on goals that matter to our business; that will help our business grow.” It removed the tension. Got us on the same page. Leaders were very willing to step up, knowing this foundational logic.

2. NGOs should be your best friends

I am still surprised by how many business leaders stereotype all NGOs as radical and anti-business. Don’t be afraid of NGOs. Most are well-intentioned. The radical ones are the 1 percent. Besides, you need them for their expertise and credibility. Be humbled: Corporations don’t generate much trust.

3. Welcome transparency, but develop thick skin

Business leaders bemoan social media, undercover videos that show wrongs and how mean-spirited many people are when they think they are web-invisible. I have felt this pain, too.

Rather than let these web-whiners wreck our lives, embrace transparency and use it more effectively than the “enemy.” But develop thick skin. Guaranteed, you and your company will be insulted.

Being open and engaging is something every company can do. Consumers don’t expect perfection. But they do expect honesty and integrity. Why and how you do something is just as important as what you do.

4. Get off your heels and develop your own sustainability strategy

Why are so many companies still letting others dictate what they do, and then complaining about NGO campaigns, shareholder proposals and media negativity? Play 75 percent offense, 25 percent defense.

5. Set tough goals to stretch your business

The internal business battle often is the conflict between being a leader and minimizing risk. Corporate leaders cannot have both.

Work with your leadership to plot an X/Y graph, with risk as one axis and bold leadership as the other. This is a great exercise to use for your various programs, with some goals deserving high levels of leadership and risk, others low or moderate.

6. Invite in the lawyers, IT and accountants — really!

In other words, treat sustainability as a core part of your business.

We need their rigor. Nonfinancial reporting is heading toward the same rigor as financial reporting. It is a discipline — and not easy.

Gathering data is the baseline of establishing sustainable leadership.

7. Tighten the weakest link in your supply chain

A weak link in your supply chain can wreak havoc. For some it is 80 percent or more of your impact.

Suppliers don’t traditionally think upstream. They think only of their four walls. The four walls now are from cradle-to-grave. Devise ways to make sustainability a piece of your supplier performance process.

8. Science should trump popular opinion

This is one I lose sleep on. You can find science to support any point of view.

My best advice is to create external councils or expert panels with credible third parties and ask if they will speak up for the science and the right thing to do.

9. Sustainability may be a fuzzy term, but it’s a real part of our future

Sustainability is here to stay, and it's a reality for a successful business enterprise of the future.

Consumers are demanding this, perhaps in spirit right now but more and more with their wallets. 

Business-to-business is more centered on sustainability than ever.

It is not a niche thing. It’s becoming mainstream.

The language of sustainability can be esoteric and technical. So let’s call it something else, like “Purpose.” Consumers want it all: quality, safety, performance value and purpose.

Consumers really care about where and how their products are made, what goes into them and how they are processed. Winning companies will connect with these consumers.

10. Five Ps

Passion: Don’t ever let up having passion for what you do.

Persistence: Sustainability people, filled with natural passion, forget that others won't jump on board so easily, so be persistent.

Patience: But as you persist, show patience. Change takes a long time. If you let your persistence and passion overtake your patience, you will be defeated.

Purpose: I think this could be the most important — to work with your colleagues to show the purpose behind the actions. Most of us are very motivated by purpose, beyond just profit.

Performance: Create measures for both societal benefit and business benefit. Sustainability should have the rigor and robustness of the financial world. It should not be perceived as “soft.”

Catch Bob Langert on a panel at Creating Transformational Change: Driving Sustainability Inside the C-Suite, an event planned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and VOX Global, July 23-24 in Washington, D.C.