In The Adventure of Sustainable Performance, we liken the daily forces of disruption in business to our own experience of being charged by a bull elephant. We survived to tell the story of the second day when we actually canoed peacefully under a herd of elephants on the Zambezi River. The key difference was the way we approached the elephants and avoided the charge.
There will be many businesses that will become consumed or paralysed by the charge. Others will believe that responding to incremental compliance nudges will allow them to return to business as usual. But if you fail to leave the bush, you’ll only face the charge again. However, by surviving the charge you’ve bought yourself a licence to get in the canoe to find a new and creative way forward to integrate sustainability with your particular business. Investors and customers alike want to see companies who understand how their business delivers value to the entire ecosystem.
We believe that Sustainable Performance is an adventure that will allow humanity to thrive indefinitely within the constraints of our planetary boundaries. By Sustainable Performance we mean a way of operating that unlocks value creation advantages by placing the organisation in the service of an environmentally sustainable and socially just future. By reaching out into the world, being curious about how it works, and finding challenges to address and opportunities to seize, SMEs can drive the Sustainable Performance of their organisations.
What we’ve noticed about many business founders is their vision and determination to follow their own unique path. In many cases, as they created their organisations, they were not blinded by being in business, rather they were guided in business by fundamental convictions of purpose and making an impact.
In our experience the pioneering leaders emerging today are showing actions that can be traced to three mindsets. First, to be open-minded and have a deeper awareness and perceptiveness about the wider world in which their organisation operates. Second, to have a clear understanding of the reality of now and appreciation of the risks and the required speed and scale of change – in short be prepared to go for it. Third, to be comfortable and courageous enough to leave behind old ways of doing things – to leave the apparent safety of the bush and explore new paths.
These mindsets are not exceptional, possessed only by a few. In fact, the diligent, determined, competitive passion that makes leaders aspire to lead in the first place is just what is required for leadership today and in the future. But this needs to be balanced and guided with humility, pragmatism, true authenticity, and hope.
We see pioneers who are focused on solving sustainability challenges, who are hard-wired to want to change the world for the better; they simply can’t do anything else. Cyndi Rhoades founded Worn Again Technologies, a circular economy textile recycling business, in 2005. What started as a lone pioneer relationship, supported by the first ever start-up investment from H&M, has now turned into an innovation and investment platform, with H&M creating an ecosystem of next generation technologies that can transform the industry.
Like Worn Again Technologies, many pioneers today tend not to get into the canoe alone. Given the need to gain foresight for 2030 and beyond, to understand materiality and the potential of externalities to disrupt or destroy or become new sources of value, companies need to build partnerships with stakeholders. Sustainable Performance is about co-creating value.
Industry transformation platforms grow, capital blends from different sources, big business and brands become long-term customers, and consumers demand change; the potential for a whole industry to change to a fully sustainable model is close to reality.
The leaders that people will want to follow in the future will be those who are bold and courageous, unafraid to embrace the world in all its chaos, to make difficult decisions and seek solutions through innovative, entrepreneurial thinking, seeing the fun in the adventure.
But that is only half of the story. These leaders will also need to be able to cultivate calm in the middle of the mess, cutting through the ‘noise’ to extract the essential from the complex, to confidently challenge the crumbling status quo with humble maturity and inspire those who follow them to envision a better world.