Making that 'make-or-break' breakthrough pitch

The Elkington Report

Making that 'make-or-break' breakthrough pitch


I never set out to speak truth to power. But over the decades I have come to appreciate how Daniel felt when thrown into the den of lions, as I challenged the purpose, values and even business models of some of the world’s most successful corporations.

Recently, I calculated that I have presented to, or been involved in, some 70 top team meetings. Most of those were occasions where at least some of those present would have gladly watched the relevant agenda item — and me — reduced to ash, bones, gristle and congealing blood. And that was particularly true when I tried to stretch horizons and ambitions beyond incremental solutions to breakthrough, even exponential outcomes.

This was in the back of my mind when I asked the Volans team to begin work on our Breakthrough Pitch. This is a slide deck and accompanying guide designed to help business change agents, inside or outside corporations, to present the case for breakthrough change to top teams. The idea was to distill our hard-won learning and make it available through our Project Breakthrough platform, co-evolved with the U.N. Global Compact.

Then I had an opportunity to road test the pitch in New York during the week that saw the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, the Global Compact’s Leaders Summit and Climate Week.

With hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria having softened up the political resistance, I was talking to people already sold on the idea. One senior woman from a major South Korean holding group even described herself as an "exponential being" following a session with Singularity University earlier in the year.

Yet when we invited a key figure at Singularity U to speak at the Global Compact’s event last year, I was energetically challenged by several companies, demanding to know why we had such an outlier on the stage.

My response at the time: You would have said exactly the same about bringing in Greenpeace in the 1980s and about inviting Muhammad Yunus or other social innovators to speak to your top team in the early 2000s.

The pitch is designed to turn top-team tables, helping change agents show how the apparently impossible is increasingly becoming possible — and, as some say, almost inevitable.

It is also designed to be cannibalized. The idea is that intrapreneurs can use it to build their own presentations, dragging across the bits they want, while ignoring the others. As Interface put it when launching its Climate Take Back initiative, "Steal these slides!"

Happily, Interface CEO Jay Gould was among senior business leaders taking part in our Carbon Productivity Roundtable in the wake of the Global Compact’s Leaders Summit. We were talking not just about applying the brakes to climate change but about reversing it. Gould’s own story demonstrates that leaders who were once pretty skeptical about global warming increasingly understand the nature and scale of what faces us.

So what to do? Some of those present thought we were raising the bar uncomfortably high. But Paul Hawken has given plenty of evidence on how this might be done in his extraordinary new book, "Drawdown," which occupied center-stage at our Carbon Productivity Basecamp in June.

Later, as we put the finishing touches to the pitch, one particular board meeting kept flashing back into my mind. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Walmart — which had found huge numbers of its stores underwater or otherwise out of action — began a serious rattling of its global supply chains.

Within a few months, I was invited to speak to two well-known companies that had found themselves on the receiving end of the superstore’s injunctions to radically improve their energy efficiency and, by extension, carbon footprints.

After the second of these meetings, I was taken aside by a member of the relevant board. It turned out that she was a psychologist. She quizzed me on why I used humor in such settings, where everyone else was dead serious.

I replied that I couldn’t remember — or tell — jokes to save my life, but that I had somehow worked out that the right sort of playfulness, often done in the instant, could help people shift gears. A form of top-team Zen.

She smiled, noting that it was a highly risky strategy, at which point my heart began to sink into my proverbial boots. But then she added that it could work well—in two distinct ways.

If well judged and timed, she advised, it could reassure powerful people that you were not going for their throats. Or perhaps that you were not such a missionary that you couldn’t hear any other views.

But then, second, most people in such meetings were unused to having an outsider tease them in public. In some minds, she mused, this might suggest that you represented much bigger forces in the outside world than perhaps was the case.

At least Daniel had his faith when facing the big cats — and an angel to protect him, we are told. By contrast, I often feel that — as the WWII bomber pilots used to say — I operate on a "wing and prayer." At the edges of the known and the apparently possible.

Still, the task of addressing top teams has become easier over the years as the external reality has changed in ways that some of us had predicted it might. Happily, there is also the confidence that comes with practice, even if perfection remains forever out of reach.

My ideal outcome would be that growing numbers of change agents "steal" and use elements of our Breakthrough Pitch. But, critically too, that we work out a way to help them share their experiences, together with some approaches that have helped them sell the stretch change agenda to top teams.

Maybe that’s something that you — and the wider GreenBiz community — can now help us with.