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Getting Real

How do you avoid getting distracted and stay focused on the mission?

Damn the torpedoes (and tweets)! Full speed ahead!

Staying focused

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

Much has been said, and will be said, about 2020. The word "unprecedented" has been used an unprecedented number of times. We are constantly bombarded by the media, whether it be about politics, COVID-19 or the state of the economy. The media barely lets an hour pass without reporting another late-breaking story. And most of us barely let an hour pass without checking for the next dramatic update.

Given the general sense of chaos surrounding all of us, Sustainability Veterans members discussed how we stay centered and focused on the mission while not ignoring the news. We wanted to share our points of view to help you stay focused on accomplishing your own mission.

As always, our views are both different from and complementary to one another. We range from the hopeful to the practical. We hope you find some pearls of wisdom here.

Practice radical curiosity: I try to stay focused on the big picture. These turbulent and perilous times demand that we practice radical curiosity, seeking to understand both the positions and the underlying interests of those who oppose climate action and regeneration. Some, perhaps many, may join with us if we can empathetically address their losses and fears. With their engagement, we together can learn how to rebuild our economy and democracy with greater equality, justice and health.

— Bart Alexander is former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors. He consults on leading sustainable change through Alexander & Associates and climate change action through Plan C Advisors.

Look 10 years ahead: My attention, like many, has been focused on the political and human health events of the day. I am typically an optimist and am using this time to backcast to see the world from 10 years in the future. I see a world focused on massive decarbonization, building not just sustainable, but regenerative businesses and dealing with tough issues like equity. How we all get there excites me and gives me clarity of purpose.

— Mark Buckley is the former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative.

Keep your future grandchildren in mind: Like many sustainability professionals, I am an optimistic systems thinker with a long-term view. I keep my (hopefully) future grandchildren in mind. Since humanity’s well-being and a flourishing economy are both contingent on a healthy environment, I focus my energies on the environmental mission with the longest-lasting impacts, notably climate change and ocean plastification. Protecting the environment brings the most long-term benefit to the greatest number of people, regardless of country, race and/or political affiliation.

— Jacqueline Drumheller led Alaska Airlines’ formal sustainability program as sustainability manager and is now consulting.

Keep your head down and stay single-minded: When there is a lot of commotion, either externally or in the company, I exercise the simple mantra "heads down." Rather than try to exist above the fray or even co-exist within it, I tend to be most effective in that place where I can single-mindedly focus on our sustainability goals. I have found that when the dust settles, I am often able to demonstrate some progress while others are just catching their breath.

— Cecily Joseph is the former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec and serves as chair of the Net Impact board of directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School.

Connect current events to issues: I found the best thing to do was to spend a little time studying what is going on in current events because often I could find connections back to our key issues. The interesting and challenging thing about sustainability is that it is so holistic that the ability to make the connections allowed me to continue to message that our sustainability work could not be pigeonholed into a small, side-bucket-like environment.

— Dawn Rittenhouse was director of sustainable development for the DuPont Company from 1998 to 2019.

Use events to strengthen the climate narrative: The issue for me is the climate crisis. Current events serve to highlight the fact that this is a crisis tied to everything — Black Lives Matter, COVID, public health, gender inequity, immigration, food security. Far from a distraction, these events help to build a stronger narrative, supported by robust data and models — that investments in a clean, equitable and regenerative economy and unity, not division, are the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

— Sarah Severn spent over two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike, leading strategy, stakeholder engagement and championing systems thinking and collaborative change, and is principal of Severn Consulting.

Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves: Focus comes from a sense of empathy and urgency developed over the course of my career. A senior leader once asked why monitoring factory working conditions was so important. My response was that we ultimately speak for those unable to speak for themselves. Whether it’s factory workers, underrepresented communities or future generations of our families, change will only take place if we lead from the front with focus and intent.

— Mark Spears retired from The Walt Disney Company after nearly 30 years, spanning a series of finance, strategic planning and sustainability roles. He serves as founder and chief strategist at common+value, a sustainability consultancy.

Focus on the opportunities to make change: If we do this right, and I believe leaders will emerge who will, we have the rare opportunity to unite divided peoples, countries and continents to solve the world’s two biggest crises — COVID-19 and climate change. Together, we can do this, and I remain laser-focused on helping in any way that I can. We have no choice but lots of opportunity.

— Trisa Thompson, a lawyer, is former chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies.

Stay focused on how you can contribute: We have no choice. Ignoring the myriad distractions is hard (and I often fail!), but we have the opportunity to solve multiple massive problems and improve people's lives enormously in the process. Focusing on how I can contribute helps me avoid the distractions and gives me hope.

— Bill Weihl was Google’s green energy czar, leading climate and clean energy work, then spent six years at Facebook as director of sustainability. In 2020, he founded ClimateVoice.

Minimize social media time: In order for me to be my best self, I minimize my social media time and maximize my fresh-air time. I hunker down and focus on supporting myself, my family and my work.

— Ellen Weinreb is a sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans.

Schedule it in: If something is captivating my attention, I first shamelessly ponder whether it can actually help feed the mission by providing evidence or anecdotes, exposing synergies or offering metaphors that aid in communication. Otherwise, I literally schedule a time slot to check it out, only after accomplishing my most important and mission-aligned goals for the day. If I’m distracted, so are others, and having some exposure helps me figure out how to dilute its allure.

— Kathrin Winkler is former chief sustainability officer for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor at large for GreenBiz.

Understand and react: Rather than be distracted by current events, sustainability practitioners must understand and react to them (e.g., the emergence of the racial equality movement). Practitioners must also anticipate the next big issue. In a former role, we used an emerging issues process to evaluate the probability and magnitude of the impacts. While no one can predict the future, this process kept us one step ahead.

Tim Mohin is the former CEO of GRI and former chief sustainability officer of AMD.

About Sustainability Veterans: We are a group of professionals who have had leadership roles in the world of corporate sustainability. We are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to help the next generation of sustainability leaders achieve success.

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