At SB’21 San Diego, leaders from a variety of industries and disciplines seemed to agree on three key drivers necessary for the regenerative leadership our world needs.
This is one of a series of posts filled with insights gained from dozens of industry leaders, practitioners and innovators on a variety of themes at SB’21 San Diego. Read more insights on product and business model innovation, brand storytelling, stakeholder engagement,supply chain optimization, regeneration and social impact metrics and more …
Nestlé CMO Aude Gandon discusses 'Generation Regeneration'
With Regeneration as the theme, many of the conversations at SB’21 San Diego naturally turned to ‘how do we get there from here?’ Throughout the week, experts and innovators across industries seemed to agree on three key drivers necessary for the regenerative leadership our world needs: authenticity, purpose and egalitarianism — in work, as well as society.
The first moments of the opening night plenary felt like tracking the ebbs and flows of the last 19 months.
In the first in-person gathering in two-and-a-half years, Sandy Skees — SB Board Chair and EVP/Global Lead of Purpose and Impact, JEDI Advisory Services at Porter Novelli — began with remarks about how the perception of both individuals and executives had changed since the pandemic began.
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“Words matter,” she emphasized — noting that at the first SB conference in 2007, Hurricane Katrina’s impact was just being understood on a climate scale when the IPCC said it was “unequivocally” caused by climate change.
SB founder and CEO Koann Skrzyniarz offered more optimistic glimpses, highlighting the 600 attendees together, in San Diego — along with another few thousand tuning in virtually, globally — for a total of 3,000 people trading ideas and perspectives in these defining times.
She was clear that there couldn’t be a return to pre-pandemic “normal,” and working to forge new paths ahead for a better future for businesses and individuals.
That better future is a cornerstone of the week’s theme: Regeneration.
It’s something Regenerative Business Summit founder Carol Sanford noted in recorded remarks challenging attendees to shift from prior, fragmented notions to thinking about solutions as a whole and seeing the potential in that mindset.
Of course, there’s plenty of uncertainty around how best to make that shift; and author/professor Larry Robertson attempted to tackle that head on through a lens of leadership.
“Uncertainty is a theme — the elephant in the room and the opportunity,” he said. “Leadership is shared, and we need to start treating it that way.”
While noting just how uncertain most of us feel in 2021, he highlighted great opportunity within that risk. Regenerative strategies can feel risky; but with the right leadership, they can also lead to great reward.
And what does that reward look like? It could very well be the work of biology consultancy Biomimicry 3.8.
Managing Director Nicole Miller spoke about her team’s efforts to build modern design inspired by nature, building the next generation of sustainable structures and infrastructure. She pointed to examples — including Ford’s new EV plant in Tennessee, a water filtration system in urban Atlanta and a popular bat refuge bridge in Austin, TX.
“(We want to build) what it looks like to move beyond zero,” Miller said, noting real purpose behind each “B3” (shorthand for the organization’s name) initiative.
Patagonia legend Rick Ridgeway then reminded the audience that all of this work takes time and every step is another step forward. As VP of Environmental Initiatives and Special Media Projects at the outdoor clothing company, Ridgeway has a unique perspective on what is largely considered the gold standard in apparel sustainability.
“The real goal isn’t the summit, but the footsteps it takes to get there,” he said — not only talking about business, but of an incredible personal journey with a close friend’s daughter, recounting their ascent celebrating the life of her mountaineer father.
Nestlé CMO Aude Gandon rounded out the opening keynotes, highlighting a range of initiatives the 150-year-old company is working on to achieve their goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and its efforts to foster what it’s calling “Generation Regeneration.”
“Step by step, we’re changing our systems everywhere,” she said, noting a brand-new, completely solar-powered factory in Germany, among other advancements.
She cited decreases across the board in the quality of our food worldwide, and that regeneration is one way that a business as large and wide-reaching as Nestlé can help make a real impact — echoing one of Miller’s resounding points from earlier.
“Nature doesn’t just bounce back,” she said, “it bounces forward.”
Cultivating breakthrough regenerative leadership
Ask five different sustainability leaders their opinion of what “regenerative leadership” looks like, and you’re bound to get five different answers.
Although that’s the first question Wilhelms Consulting Group owner Pamela Wilhelms posed in Tuesday’s discussion on “Cultivating and Training Breakthrough Regenerative Leadership,” the consensus underscored that many conventional forms of leadership aren’t working. The range of philosophies on offer showed that the answer to cultivating regenerative leadership isn’t straightforward and will require continued buy-in from those steering the ship in all aspects of society.
“Leadership has long been focused on competition,” Izzo Associates president and Blueprint co-founder John Izzo said. “We all know we’ve been degenerating for a long time.”
The panel bordered on a more philosophical conversation about how to bring sustainability into the everyday conversation from the top down — from leadership through to employee bases and society and government in a larger sense.
“Sometimes the magic happens from people in the field — janitors, those on the supply chain, etc,” said Dave Ford, founder of the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network.
This “magic” essentially revolves around a complete rethinking of the systems and processes that drive business as we know it — no easy task. According to Samantha Veide, Associate Director, US at Forum for the Future, it means a complete rethinking and the creation of new business ecosystems — “a new way of approaching things,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the theories that all the panelists posed is time. If current systems stay as they are, meeting any climate goals — whether the IPCC objectives or carbon neutrality by 2050 — won’t happen in time to stop the climate degeneration we’re all working to reverse.
“Unless we hack the system (government and business), we won’t get the change we need fast enough,” Izzo said.
Valutus founder Daniel Aronson echoed many of the sentiments: “A different end point means a different journey to get there,” he added.
Part of accelerating the change is getting employees and smaller stakeholders to buy in. Wilhelms noted a conversation with Seventh Generation founder and former CEO Jeffrey Hollender, where he wanted to make sure that employees of the company felt like they were part of something more than just a paycheck.
“(He aimed) to make employees feel part of something bigger than themselves,” she noted.
The ‘Virtuous Spiral’ of transcendent business: How to ‘Lead With We’
We First founder and CEO Simon Mainwaring has long served global companies by carving out identity and meaning in a rapidly changing world. Mainwaring’s Wednesday workshop explored a radical re-engineering of business based on collectivized purpose to address global problems while keeping the doors of business open.
The future of business, Mainwaring said, must be one which makes net-positive outcomes for business, people and the planet not only possible, but inevitable.
Mainwaring shared his vision of achieving this goal, drawing from his new book, Lead with We, to describe the “Virtuous Spiral of Collectivized Purpose in Action.” The spiral reimagines leadership and re-engineers company culture, culminating in brands as an inevitable force for positive change and growth.
With the latest IPCC Assessment casting damning prospects for global inaction, Mainwaring’s insights are a last call as much as they are inspirational.
“We’re out of time; and there’s going to be huge consequences — not just for people, but for businesses,” he said.
Business response to COVID, racial tensions, and unprecedented climate emergencies in ‘20-’21 give some reason to hope, Mainwaring said; but it’s not enough to negate even the gentler effects of what’s coming. Those who do nothing or not enough will not stand in the court of public opinion, especially as climate and social woes come to a head.
“Your social license to operate will be revoked if you are not clearly defined and articulate about the role your company is playing in the world,” he said.
Mainwaring’s Virtuous Spiral starts at the individual and spirals upward to regenerative transcendence:
Individuals: Recognize new realities, grasp urgency, shift thinking, and act accordingly.
Leaders: Define company purpose and goals. Find your secret sauce, conduct an honest audit, and determine your reasons for existing.
Company: Activate purpose and align internal stakeholders.
Community: Mobilize brand communities and build movements.
Society: Collaborate cross-sector and shape culture.
Transcendence: Evolve principles and practices to scale human and planetary health.
“This is about the aggregate of all of these efforts,” Mainwaring said. “We are not moving far enough fast enough to meet these contracted timelines alone.”
The stakes have never been higher, and stakeholders are ready to join the table. Everyone is awakened to the fact that business-as-usual is not serving the future.
Brands, he said, need to be community architects, rallying collectively around shared values instead of pitching products. IKEA, for example, now offers climate-positive energy options to customers. When did that become a brand responsibility?
By Leading with We.
Building brands that champion equity and justice
L-R: Edward Wang, Nick Street, Taryn Bird, Roxana Shirkhoda and James Thomas
The hard work of delivering on the wave of social-justice commitments made from the private sector during 2020 is just beginning. On Wednesday afternoon, representatives from Alaska Airlines, Kate Spade, Vans and Zoom came together to share insights gained from their authentic work to champion equity and justice. Moderator Edward Wang, Director of Corporate Social Impact at Tides, specified that equity and justice are inclusive of race, but also all other demographic factors — such as gender identity, disability status, refugee status, and others.
“The only path to adjust wealth is equity for all,” Wang said.
After 19 months of a global pandemic, mental health is finally being recognized as a critical aspect in the sustainability conversation. Taryn Bird, Senior Director of Social Impact at Kate Spade New York, shared that gender equity has been foundational in the company, but stressed that “the topic of mental health is intersectional to the challenges we face in society today.”
A refining moment for the company’s social impact work came through a partnership with a social entrepreneurship program based in Rwanda. The program demonstrated the significant impacts of investing in a woman’s mental health in addition to her economic security. Focusing on mental health support has evolved to be a global initiative both externally and internally.
Roxana Shirkhoda is Head of Social Impact at Zoom — a company that exemplifies the innovation that can occur in a time of crisis. Zoom partnered with an advisory council with a deep portfolio of social-justice organizations to strategize and execute the most just direction for $1 million in philanthropic grants. Zoom did not have a seat at the decision table. Wang applauded this action, saying: “Lift up the voices of those with lived experiences; and give away not only money, but also power.”
Meanwhile, innovation in equity and justice at Alaska Airlines has focused on creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, where employees can feel safe bringing their whole, authentic selves to work. James Thomas, Alaska’s Director of DEI, highlighted growing the leadership team to be representative of the frontline workers, creating leadership pathways for young people, and leaning into engagement surveys to weigh in on subjects that are important to the community. Pushed by employees to make a bold statement, Alaska partnered with UNCF to convert some of its planes into powerful billboards, with artwork showing brown and black faces to promote racial equity everywhere it flies.
Vans was founded on a culture of self-expression and creativity, where skateboarding has helped both consumers and employees alike. Nick Street — VP of Global Integrated Marketing at Vans, VF Outdoor — acknowledges the company has a huge role in diversifying skateboarding (not known for its gender inclusivity). Six years ago, Vans created a global skateboarding league for women who then went on to compete in the 2021 Olympics, exuding an overwhelming and unprecedented level of skill and deep camaraderie — an example of true impact that Vans refers to.
A resounding theme from the panel is that social impact work must be designed with authenticity. As Street pointed out, from Vans’ perspective: “As a leader with the Generation Z workforce — if you’re not authentically showing up, they will call you out.”