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Two Steps Forward

How should a sustainability elder show up? The community weighs in

From speaking truth to power to ‘wondering around,’ advice for how experienced professionals can have an outsized impact.

A lonely person standing in the middle of a giant green maze

AlbertoHB/Shutterstock

Last month, I pondered my next move — that is, following a summerlong "sorta-batical," and at age 71, the most impactful ways that this 35-year veteran of the sustainable business arena should show up, professionally speaking. I suggested that many in my age cohort — variously frustrated, tired or uncertain — were asking similar questions about what to do next: Lead, follow or get out of the way?

I turned to my LinkedIn community for counsel. I already knew I wasn’t the only long-timer pondering such questions. While tens of thousands of professionals have found their way into sustainability careers in the past few years, scores of us have been plowing these fields for decades. Perhaps other veterans’ journeys could inform mine, and vice versa.

LinkedIn delivered. More than 125 of you responded — longtime friends and colleagues, newer associates and some veritable strangers. You offered personal stories, sage wisdom and more than a modicum of appreciation for my inquiry. Altogether, it was a rich and gratifying lode of insight and inspiration.

And it was clear that I’d struck a nerve with some of my fellow elders. Pioneering green building architect David Johnson, for example, offered thanks "for bringing into words what so many of us feel."

Gil Friend, whose firm, Natural Logic, has been consulting to companies for more than four decades, acknowledged his own pondering. "I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done as well as lived through, what’s succeeded, what’s failed, the accomplishments I’m proud of, the mistakes I’m embarrassed by (and have hopefully learned from), and particularly by all the fascinating ideas and initiatives that I would have loved to pursue, but didn’t — yet — find the time or focus to."

So, what did I hear? The advice fell into four broad themes, in no particular order:

Speaking truth to power

"The most important role of an elder is to offer honest insights on what is truly needed, even when it's unpopular," wrote Erik Assadourian, editor in chief at Corporate Eco Forum. "Elders, after all, aren't pursuing promotions and can be more honest than most. In your case, being an honest voice for the need for economic degrowth and how to pursue it would be a powerful role."

The most important role of an elder is to offer honest insights on what is truly needed, even when it's unpopular.

Others offered similar thoughts, including encouraging me to be bold. "Little ever happens without someone first making waves," offered Emma Burlow, founding director of U.K.-based Lighthouse Sustainability. "I'm reading about feminists in history currently and there are so many parallels with sustainability." She concluded: “Make some waves."

Providing perspective

"Your long-term perspective has enabled you to see the good, but also where it's falling short," wrote journalist Michael Parks. "Young people need elder allies who stand with them in calling out the latter part. I've been very inspired by the example of Bill Weihl on this front." Me, too, Michael. (I serve on Weihl’s advisory board.)

Perhaps the whole field could use some perspective, offered Peter Hess, a sustainability management consultant. "Leadership experts distinguish between working ‘in’ an organization versus ‘on’ an organization." "You've been working ‘in’ the climate space, building an organization and directly addressing sustainability issues. What would it look like for you to work ‘on’ the field itself, i.e., identifying, amplifying and connecting the people, orgs and activities that provide the biggest leverage points for change?"

Some invoked the wisdom of icons and iconoclasts, from systems theorist Buckminster Fuller to journalist and activist Bill McKibben.

"Donella Meadows would say that changing the ‘mindset or paradigm’ is the most effective place to be," wrote Kathryn Cooper, a sustainability program manager at the University of Toronto. "We need ‘seers’ of the future – people who see the system and can tell the story of how we might get to the future we want. So many people (in business and in the world) just don't see ‘it’ yet."

Mentoring the next generation

This is my joy: sharing knowledge and, occasionally, wisdom with my younger colleagues. Several commenters encouraged me to lean in on this activity.

"We keep going, iterating, pivoting, rebooting from all angles all at once," wrote Gavin Starks, founder and CEO of Icebreaker One, among several other visionary U.K.-based companies. "And lay strong foundations for what has to happen next. Mentors and advisors are critical in that navigation. We can only go as far as we can see. From there we can see farther."

"I think that you, and others like you, who have amassed so much, can and should continue to look for ways to serve as mentors," advised Derek Young, who heads ESG at CBL Properties in Chattanooga, Tenn. "And to help guide the rest of us towards the right decisions and actions by continuing to show us the right direction."

Catalyzing other elders

Several respondents expressed a need to convene sustainability veterans with the goal of helping accelerate others’ learning curves.

"We elders need to find the time to sit together around the zero-emission fire now and then, to celebrate past successes and probe lessons learned from past wobbles and failures," offered John Elkington, long a visionary in sustainable business and one of my own mentors.

Others seemed to agree. "Perhaps you could put together a cohort of changemakers and help mentor us to achieve the potential of our ideas, passion and work to date, and encourage other elder leaders to do the same," suggested Rob Anderson, CEO of Climateers, based in Melbourne, Australia.

"We need grownups to help usher in a new era of conscious leadership," offered Phil White, co-founder of the brand strategy firm Grounded World. "People who have been there and done and witnessed much, who can balance vim and velocity and with hard-earned experience, wisdom and perspective and bring people along on the journey."

We need grownups to help usher in a new era of conscious leadership.

As I said, there was overwhelming appreciation for the inquiry itself. Steve Isley, for example, a behavioral scientist who once led sustainable customer research at Amazon, wrote: "When I was very young, maybe six or seven, I remember going to family reunions and being the one kid who would sit quietly and listen while all the elders reminisced. I didn't understand most of the stories, but it was valuable nonetheless.

"This thread feels a bit like the ‘middle-aged-me’ version of that. My own journey isn't long enough to meaningfully contribute, nor can I fully appreciate or relate to what is being expressed, but I can say thank you to everyone who has shared here. I appreciate being able to listen in."

I’ll echo that appreciation. Thanks to all who weighed in.

I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite comment, but high on the list would likely be a reflection from Rich Lechner, who I met years ago during his 20-year stint at IBM, and reconnected with more recently while guest lecturing at his Smart Cities & Communities class at Stanford.

My inquiry, he said, brought to mind something he’d heard early in his career: "An elder should spend their time ‘wondering around,’ just asking leading questions and getting others to move the ball forward in the process."

Wondering around!

What a perfect notion for a seeker like me. Thanks, Rich. I’m all in.

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