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Sustainability decisions are tough — this former Gap ESG leader has tips for making them easier

Longtime social impact leader Abby Davisson shares insights from the new book she has co-authored, "Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions."

Abby Davisson

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Consider some or your biggest life decisions: deciding on a life partner or taking a new job, for example. When supporting candidates considering a job offer, I suggest they view the choice through a broad perspective about how this next job would support their career goals and their personal goals.   

It can feel like you’re walking through a minefield when making decisions around these issues, whether in your own life and work or in your job as a sustainability professional. That’s why I was excited to read a new book by social impact leader Abby Davisson and labor economist Myra Strober, "Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions."

Using research and lessons Strober pioneered for her popular work and family class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the authors developed a "5Cs" framework to help people make important decisions in a holistic, integrated way that considers both financial and relationship concerns. The 5Cs are shorthand for five steps:

  1. Clarify what’s important to you.
  2. Communicate with the people who will be most affected by your decision.
  3. Consider a broad range of choices.
  4. Check in with friends, family, and other resources.
  5. Explore likely consequences.
Money and Love Book Cover

Although the book is focused on how individuals can make better decisions, I was curious to hear from Davisson about what sustainability practitioners can learn from this approach. She has worked in sustainability and ESG for more than two decades, including as a senior leader in social impact for Gap Inc., president of the Gap Foundation and director of career and strategy programs at Net Impact, where we first crossed paths. More recently, Davisson is founder and CEO of the Money and Love Institute, whose mission is to help people make more intentional decisions.

Following is an excerpt from our discussion, edited for clarity and length.

Ellen Weinreb: You write that most of us are making decisions all wrong. What are we getting wrong, and how does the 5Cs framework help us get it right?

Abby Davisson: Conventional wisdom says that you need to separate decisions about money and love. We’re taught never to let emotions cloud the financial decisions and never to let money interfere with relationship decisions, because that's materialistic. And, of course, that’s terrible advice, because all big decisions have a component of money and love, and if you separate the two, you're missing the whole picture, and you're more likely to make decisions that ultimately you end up regretting.

We developed our 5Cs framework to help people slow down, to turn over the right rocks that have been proven to lead to more effective decisions. And this works for both for business and personal decisions because it addresses the same human biases that get in the way of our decision-making.

Weinreb: I see parallels in personal and business decisions: We focus on the short term, we’re influenced by competitors, and we can have tunnel vision or siloed thinking, focusing on just the business case while failing to consider the moral argument for social and environmental action. How can sustainability professionals use the 5Cs framework to help their companies make better decisions?

Davisson: More so than others, sustainability folks understand why [the traditional approach to decision-making] is flawed: They likely got into this work because they see the need to approach decisions in a holistic way. They see that business decisions have implications for communities, implications for employees, implications for lots of different stakeholders.

Our 5Cs framework provides a way for folks who are intuitively drawn to this work to have a structured process that they can apply for their decisions, regardless of the sphere that they’re making them in — in the workplace or their personal lives. Because you’re the same person, regardless of whether you’re making a decision in the boardroom or in your dining room.

Weinreb: This is especially true for sustainability professionals, who bring their passion to their work. How can these people benefit from more intentional decision-making on a personal level?

Davisson: As Freud said, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." And so we need both of those in our lives. But currently, our money institutions, our work institutions, are not as good as they could be on the love front. And it's one of the things that leads to the trade-offs that we're often asked to make between money and love. Sustainability professionals are working to change that, but our culture and our policies and our institutions are not going to change overnight.

There are a few reasons why I think this book matters to sustainability professionals: No. 1, so that they know they're not alone. We did a large research survey for our book, and one of the things that people shared is that they felt very alone when confronting these trade-offs. And yet we could see on the other end of the research how so many of the stories and the voices were sharing similar themes and struggling with similar issues. So we want sustainability professionals to know they're not alone.

There are culture and policy changes that would be helpful to support everyone to make fewer trade-offs, and sustainability leaders are absolutely able to influence those things.

The second reason is to make sure that they are living full personal lives and not letting their passion for this work lead them to burnout. Because I know how intense and demanding it can be — especially when you feel so strongly about these issues — and how work demands can bump up against living a full personal life.

The third reason is captured in the last chapter of our book: There are culture and policy changes that would be helpful to support everyone to make fewer trade-offs, and sustainability leaders are absolutely able to influence those things.

Weinreb: As a recruiter, I’m focused on the human side of sustainability, and I’ve written a lot about competencies required for sustainability leaders to make an impact. As a leader in this field helping people make better decisions, what would you say are the most important competencies for someone to be a change agent?

Davisson: I love the ones you've written about: I absolutely resonate with the strategy and influencing and being a corporate chameleon. I think those are spot on.

Related to influencing, I would add developing allies who also want to see change happen and using them to help you influence. At Gap, when I worked closely with Old Navy on their career advancement program, it was very effective to have their CMO and head of stores serve as internal champions — more so than me as the head of the foundation beating the drum alone. Another competency is patience. We often get into this work because we see changes that urgently need to be made. But steering ocean liners, which is what large institutions are, takes time. Knowing that it's a long game — and being willing to play that long game — is really important.

Learn more about the book and the institute’s interactive course at www.moneylovebook.com.

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