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5 Tips for Leaders Who Want to Create a Strong Sustainability Culture

In order to integrate sustainability into the core of a business, it has to be a part of the company’s culture. For this to happen, a top leader must be willing and ready to go first and evolve, according to leadership advisor Sandja Brügmann.

Sandja Brügmann is a sought-after leadership advisor who, among other services, has helped top leaders from Grundfos, The Body Shop, and Chr. Hansen CEO Mauricio Graber integrate sustainability into core business practices.

Whereas CSR is an extremely narrow term, often associated with CO2 reduction, compliance and risk management, to actually become regenerative — meaning to contribute more than we extract from the world — we need purpose-driven, conscious leadership and personal development.

Brügmann has worked with sustainability, values-driven business and purpose for 18 years; and is the founder of The Passion Institute, which focuses on leadership development and sustainable business strategy. In January 2019, she launched the Sustainable Leadership Network.

In order to integrate sustainability into the core of a business, it has to be a part of the company’s culture. In order for this to happen, a top leader must be willing and ready to go first and evolve, Brügmann states.

According to Brügmann, leaders cannot successfully pursue sustainability if they don’t also work with a deeper consciousness regarding their underlying motivations.

Sandja Brügmann: Think about the company as a tree, where the tree top is all that is visible in the form of KPIs, products and business strategy. At the trunk and below is the non-physical — our values, our feelings and our subconscious beliefs and actions — which are at risk of tripping us up; and at the root is where we find purpose and a deeper meaning that lies beyond the financial aspect.

A specific example is a Danish CEO of an SME I worked with recently. One if his core values is to respect others. As his sustainability and organizational culture change advisor, I experienced that he did not treat me with respect. I made him aware that he, in a specific situation, had overstepped my boundaries, and that this needed to be corrected if our collaboration was to continue. He was very surprised to see himself through my eyes, because he was not aware that he had acted in that manner. This is understandable, as few of us can truly see ourselves from the outside. To do this, we need the help of others.

This same reasoning lies behind the need for self-awareness and psychological development as a prerequisite to drive transformative growth and change, as a business leader or leader of sustainability efforts. This takes courage — from both leaders and employees.

The CEO would not have become aware of his behavior had I not communicated openly and set a boundary. But to set a boundary takes courage, because I could lose a client. The most important aspect, of course, is that when his actions do not reflect his own values towards me, it’s likely also the case in other situations — such as with his employees, collaborators, customers and so on.

Our unconscious actions create our results — if we do not create the results we want, it is most likely due to our unconscious actions; or, in the tree trunk, if we use the same analogy. Scale this mindset to the organizational level, where it immediately becomes substantially more complex to ensure authenticity. The consequences are also magnified. We ought to see it as the most exciting journey, we can undertake — the growth journey to be able to live our purpose and potential.

It’s important that top leaders surround themselves with people, who have the courage to speak up. It requires trust-based relations to lift each other towards better.

It’s human nature that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The leaders I work with are aware of this; and if they are not, then we work with awareness around this. Therefore, top leaders need to be surrounded by people who are hired to call them out when they are out of line. Otherwise, a top leader runs the risk of being surrounded by pleasers. This is not good for the business, nor the individuals.

We can all say that we have beautiful values. Most companies do, as well. But do we actually follow through and act according to our values? Politics and games are a known factor in most companies based on the desire to reach individual goals and ambitions. This can mean that information is not shared with others, or that people undermine each other. This type of behavior works against the goal of a sustainable work culture. To achieve this type of positive work atmosphere, we have to look beyond our own siloes and our own egos, so instead we can work together across work responsibilities and hierarchies.

When you share a message with CEOs stating that they have to be less ego-driven, how do they react — because don’t people in their positions have a certain degree of ego?

SB: As an executive in one of the largest companies, you have to have confidence and drive, so ego is not necessarily bad. It is about driving it in the right way, so it creates positive development.

One of the most important exercises I ask CEOs to do is to reflect on, ‘what is at the center of your life?’ If you, as a CEO, are at the center, then you have a big problem. We are in reality just insignificant human beings, who are here for 100 years. We are not special, though we act as if we are. That is just ego. And it’s important that we move beyond that.

To solve the climate emergency, we must collaborate internally within organizations and on a global scale. As the business world functions currently, most leaders exhibit linear thinking in short-term KPIs and returns, but this thinking will never solve the climate emergency.

Sustainability might not be an area one grabs hold of to develop a company’s culture — but is it an inevitable by-product?

SB: Absolutely. As a person or as a company, we usually only develop when something hurts and is so difficult that we need to change. Currently, a climate emergency related to sustainability is the most urgent change agenda in the world, because it is threatening the resources we all are dependent on. All of our money and our KPIs are worthless and pointless if the earth is destroyed.

I often hear people say that companies talk about sustainability, but do they actually put actions to their words? My response to this is that we have to remember that the transformation process is not linear. Sustainable leadership is about providing space to your own and others’ imperfect process. As long as we measure our own progress against ourselves and ensure we are moving in a positive direction towards the goal of being more and more sustainable, then we are well on our way.

What are the most important qualities for the leaders of the future who have a focus on sustainability?

SB: The ones who will do best have a beginner’s mindset and are curious and open. It takes a lot of confidence to stand by the fact that you do not know everything and that you can make mistakes. This is something everyone needs to start recognizing as a strength. The future leader easily says, ‘sorry, I was wrong,’ or ‘that is not where we should be heading, so let’s change direction,’ without covering the fact that you made a mistake. Long-term strategies are not useful to the same degree as previously.

As a leader, you have to be rooted in the present to be able to evaluate the current circumstances. This requires new skills such as being ready to evolve, be transparent and be humble.

Many companies have long-term, 2030 plans in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals — is this then wrong?

SB: A purpose is like a north star; we use it as a navigation guide. However, the strategy to get there can change. So, 2030 plans which are set in stone should be avoided, because the context is constantly changing. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals is the north star, guiding us towards a desirable way to think and act. In my eyes, the business world has the deciding role to play if we are to succeed to live, consume and act within the planetary boundaries.

Sandja Brügmann’s 5 Ways to a Strong Sustainability & Purpose Culture

1. Move from being change-ready to change-driven

In order to solve sustainability challenges, as a leader you need to be able to bring other people to life, to flourish; such that they experience and are able to access their innate passion, innovation and creativity. This requires leadership development on the personal-development plane to know what motivates and drives others, beneath the obvious and spoken. This is why you need to see leadership development as personal transformation and as an on-going commitment to a process; where you never reach the end goal, but experience continuous successes of growth and learning towards the end goal.

2. Become conscious of your own values and purpose

It requires self-awareness to become conscious of one’s own values and deeper purpose — and to live them. Only when an underlying purpose is identified are you able to create a strong sustainability culture organizationally and leadership-wise.

Everything is created twice, as leadership expert Stephen Covey has said. First, we create a vision of the world we would like to create and live in. Then, we take action to realize this vision. And the second part is a much grander challenge: To live our values and purpose requires self-management, dedication to personal growth and a strong will. In order to succeed with this process, it is important not to look for the holes in the cheese, as we shoot down good ideas and intentions, before there is provided ample room to execute and implement. Creating a purpose and sustainability culture is a lengthy developmental process for both employees and the management team.

3. Empower and uplift each other

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ensure processes are in place within the organizational structure and the top leadership team, such that power is openly questioned and a natural part of the organizational culture. Create a culture and structure, where everyone supports and empowers each other; and where transparency and open communication is valued and expected, such that unsustainable behavior is called out and corrected. In this manner, the supportive and well-aligned actions will gradually increase. To focus on continuous personal development in the direction of a stronger autonomous, responsible, sustainable and purpose-driven cultur, where people grow is called a DDODeliberately Developmental Organization.

4. Sustainability is contingent on psychological development processes

The challenges of our time are global in nature, complex and interdependent. Thus, we cannot solve any of the grand challenges alone. We need to develop leaders who are eco-literate systems thinkers and sensers, who can perceive and understand the interrelatedness of issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, economic polarity, social inequality, social illness (stress, depression, anxiety), health issues (diabetes, cancer, etc) and so forth.

The future leader needs to understand the importance of mindset change from being short-term, profit-only-focused; to becoming long-term, profit- and purpose-focused. Leaders need to move from hierarchical structures towards a broader redistribution of influence and power within organizations; and rather than leading with control, learn to lead with autonomy, as per experts such as Dr. Robert Kegan, researcher at Harvard University.

5. A strong sustainability culture requires transparency and honesty

Get a nuanced and honest picture of where your organization — and your own leadership — create inadequate results or behaviors, which sabotage or slow development and intended performance. It requires deep self-awareness and will to work on; and with personal leadership development, you can create honesty and transparency internally in the organization, which are prerequisites to work with sustainability risks in every corner of the business — from the supply chain to negative branding.

Bonus tip: Meditation and mental training help to move beyond automatic reactions to proaction, and to improve self-understanding. Science shows that meditation and mindfulness increase mental strength and overall life contentment. It also improves our productivity and the quality of our decisions.

The Passion Institute is launching a new professional business initiative and the first offering global remote access, the Sustainable Communication Network* — which focuses on the communication professional’s important business function as a potent driver of sustainable and behavioral change, brand influence and engagement of all stakeholders.*

This article was originally written in Danish, by Tine Brødegaard Hansen, and published in SustainReport 29, in May 2019.