The Not-so-secret Ingredient in the Recipe for Corporate Sustainability Success

cookAs the holidays overpowered my normal work ethic, I found myself relaxing and studying sauces – cookbooks in hand.  While I mostly follow recipes sometimes, like other amateur cooks, I wonder about the secret ingredients that go into the very best dishes. As I pondered what made my grandmother’s gravy better than all others, I realized that I could be asking the same questions about why some corporations’ sustainability strategies are exceptional. What is the secret sauce? As I pored over relevant case studies, interview notes and articles, a key “ingredient”, rare yet not exotic, jumped out. The “must have” ingredient is trust. Leading companies are trustworthy and trusting. Let’s take a closer look.

Can We Be Trusted?

Does the public trust us and our companies?   The good news is that eighty-four percent of the respondents to the  latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey indicated that businesses can pursue self-interest while doing good work for society. The bad news is that the public doesn’t trust business leaders. Only one in five among the general public respondents have faith that business leaders tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions.  Compounding the problem, Edelman reports  “trust in the person leading the company is inextricably linked  to trust in the company itself.” [1]  As you ponder the possibility that the general public may not trust you, ask yourself the following questions.

Story Telling vs. Story Making

Are you more focused on telling your story than ensuring that you have a good story to tell? 

Corporate spin breeds suspicion. If you expend more energy communicating about your good works than on engaging in them, you will not earn trust. At best you can expect the public to be skeptical. At worst, you can experience actively negative reactions. To fix this problem, focus more on “doing” than “telling.”

Making Commitments vs. Keeping Commitments

Do you make commitments that you can’t or don’t  keep because they require too much change?

Anyone can make commitments. The challenge is in honouring them! Once you make a pledge, realize that you must persist for the long haul. If you fail to keep your commitments, you will never become trustworthy. Remember that successful implementation of long-term sustainable strategies often requires transformation and sometimes disruptive change. You must be tenacious yet flexible in how you pursue your goals. Give up the attitude that change applies to everyone but you.

Can We Trust Our Stakeholders?

Do you trust your stakeholders? Your actions show whether you have confidence that your stakeholders are intelligent, reasonable human beings with a point of view that deserves respect.

Choose to be Transparent

Do you provide ready access to information about your company? 

Many believe the adage that “knowledge is power.” Likewise, many company leaders still act as if they can preserve their power by controlling others’ knowledge of their organizations. One of several problems with this logic in today’s Internet and social-media-enabled environment is that leaders cannot exert great control over who has access to what information. Attempted concealment breeds mistrust. Trust your stakeholders and commit to transparency. Share specifics of  where you fall short as well as where you shine. If you trust your stakeholders with both types of information, they will learn to view you as trustworthy.

Explore Differing Points of View

Do you encourage stakeholders to air their varying points of view about what is material to them concerning sustainability-related topics? 

Of course stakeholders’ opinions will vary  on “doing what is right and sustainable.” But regrettably, leaders often avoid or ignore this inevitable friction. The tensions do not dissolve through lack of attention.  Rather they tend to fester into either lack of trust or outright mistrust. These days true leaders encourage the airing of differences. They enable their organizations to hold the tensions in balance. Work on becoming the leader who is a master of “both and” rather than “either or” thinking. Seek out the commonalities and possible points of integration in the varying positions.

The Recipe for Success

As an amateur cook I am well aware that I cannot create a palatable dish if I leave out a key ingredient!  And sometimes the preparation of a critical ingredient requires time, patience and concerted effort on my part before it is fit to be added to the dish. So too, establishing trust takes time and effort. So let’s get cooking!

[1] [1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/200429962/2014-Edelman-Trust-Barometer

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment in the box below.

Kathy MillerDr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

Designing the Organization of the Future

UntitledImagine an organization that brings out the best in people and removes the undesired weight of constant decision-making from those in charge. An organization driven and aligned by purpose, supported by a structure that distributes the power to the project teams that know best, ideally resulting in a massive reduction of stress for everybody. Is such a thing possible?

What happens if we start asking entirely different questions about the organization? If we shift from “how much” to questions such as: “what for”, “why” and “how”? We wanted to explore just that, so Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller and the LiFT team invited Frederic Laloux (“Reinventing Organizations”, Belgium), Christian Felber (“Economy for the Common Good”, Austria) and Tom Thomison (“Holacracy”, US) to Vienna last week.

More than a hundred keen participants joined us in a 1.5 day workshop event in Vienna. The first half a day was spent listening to global thought leaders debating the issue, the second day was spent in the Vienna IMPACT HUB figuring out how each of us could explore and advance these ideas in our own organizational realities. We used the Collaboratory methodology for the process. The outcome? YES, it is possible to design such new organizations, AND we cannot rebuild the world in one day! (more…)

The Guide to Solving Wicked Problems

ID-10088549We have all seen and heard them before, the questions that are so deep, complex and far-reaching that we both love and hate them at the same time. Impossible to answer and yet important to ask: wicked! Yet, leaders are often challenged to find answers – often without the necessary time to reflect, read or even understand. So what can you do?

There is an initial basic choice:

  1. To either ask, listen to, or hear the question
  2. To ignore it and pretend you haven’t heard it.

Option b) is clearly easier than option a). My hope is that I can encourage you to consider option a). For this, I am willing to abandon my cautious attitude and to jump into offering you a solution. Deal? (more…)

3 questions on how we assess what makes a business truly sustainable

"How can we ensure that we encourage and reinforce progress made by companies that are truly working towards greater commitments to sustainability while also pursuing profits?" - Kathy Miller Perkins

“How can we ensure that we encourage and reinforce progress made by companies that are truly working towards greater commitments to sustainability, while also pursuing profits?” – Kathy Miller Perkins

In her July blog, Transatlantic Solutions to Becoming Truly Sustainable, Katrin Muff contends that it is important for businesses to have a yardstick for measuring their progress in becoming truly sustainable.  Moreover she describes two assessments, one from the B-Corporation movement and the other from the Economy of the Common Goods.  Both do indeed enable companies to measure the impacts of their sustainability-related efforts.  As I examine both assessments, I can easily understand the benefits of both. I believe Katrin would agree that their value lies mainly in enabling companies to track progress towards reaching their environmental and social impact goals. However, I fear that in discussing the categories to which we assign companies based on the results of their assessments, we may be implying that we are subjecting them to litmus tests which serve no useful purpose.  Thus, in this blog, I am sharing with you, the readers, questions I have been pondering and have not yet been able to resolve to my satisfaction. Please let us hear your thoughts on these issues. (more…)

Transatlantic solutions to becoming truly sustainable

img1Kathy Miller has outlined the difference between a first order and a second order change for companies to advance in their sustainability journey. Referring to the Business Sustainability Typology (Dyllick-Muff, 2013), she has differentiated between incremental changes with limited impact (first order change) and fundamental change resulting in transformational change (2nd order change). Kathy highlighted the key factors required to achieve such a second order change focusing on the need for a clear vision and a number of clear leadership attributes. Imagine now that a company has an enlightened leadership and a clear vision, how can it measure if the envisioned change will have the desired impact? In this blog we are looking at B-Corps and the Economy of the Common Goods as two solutions to help companies become truly sustainable.


How to Lead Transformational Change

LeadershipLast month my blogging partner Katrin Muff commented on the fuzzy definitions of business sustainability.   She presented a three-level typology of business sustainability that she developed with her colleague, Thomas Dyllick. Type 1.0 companies are businesses which focus on creating opportunities and managing risks resulting from economic, environmental and social developments, thereby minimizing any negative impact. The goal is to maximize shareholder value.  Type 2.0 companies are focused on the triple bottom line, including economic, social and environmental variables.  These companies strive to maintain a balance between the bottom line (the profit) and a positive impact on the environment and on society.  They are continually looking for opportunities to make such an impact.

The Many Shades of Green: Defining the Different Types of Business Sustainability


So, you have decided to become a sustainable organization?!

Great, but what does that mean? A little bit sustainable or truly sustainable, or something that works for you right now somewhere in between?

Kathy Miller addressed in her blog last month the challenges of an organization to implement an ambition to become a sustainable company. These are manifold and considerable and deserve significant attention. It is after all, the “implementation gap” that mostly gets in the way of a nice vision and the often-disappointing achieved reality. I very much appreciated her shifting our conversation from the individual to the organizational level, and to point out the need for coherence in an organizational culture. Her SCALA employee survey tool offers a great way for companies to understand where they stand in terms of sustainability, highlighting future challenges and opportunities to embrace.

Don’t risk your reputation! How to engage your organization and avoid the destructive effect of corporate spin

In April’s post Kathy Miller Perkins warns of the potentially destructive effect of a lack of coherence between company ideals and employee actions.

“The thing about changing the world… Once you do it, the world’s all different.” ― Joss WhedonBuffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home

Aha! All of a sudden – or at least seemingly so – you’ve been hit by a lightning bolt and have decreed that your company must address sustainability now! You furiously draft a vision statement and ask your communications department to release it to the organization as well as to the press.  Will this get the job done?

Considering the impact of food on stress: does stress prevent us from being and thinking sustainably?

Our discussion is taking us further into the otherwise much neglected personal and social domain of sustainability. I am fascinated by Kathy Miller’s response to my initial blog post which suggested a lack of coherence between what we know and what we do in addressing sustainability challenges. Kathy’s February blog considered the inter-connection between multiple attitudes and values of a person, the influence of other people on us, as well as normative societal prescriptions. The follow-on discussion on our blog was most stimulating to read. One commenter expressed his happy surprise about connecting the methodology of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to being able to combat his own “addiction to a high carbon lifestyle”. Interestingly the principles of AA emerged out of the Initiative of Change Movement (IofC) out of Caux, above Montreux in Switzerland. IofC is, to my understanding, one of the longest living change movements in history (initially called the Moral Re-Armament) and has played a significant role in the peace talks between Germany and France after the Second World War. They run a series of conferences in the summer months up at Caux (heaven on earth!), including TIGE (Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy) from July 5-10, 2014. I am featuring a chapter of why IofC and Caux are so special in my upcoming book “The Collaboratory” (Greenleaf Publishing, July 2014).