Mention to a sustainability person that their career trajectory should be hurtling them towards some form of divine obsolescence and the reactions are, suffice to say, mixed.
The idea of them passing through some blissful reinvention to rise phoenix-like, only stronger and wiser, in some new primary function at the heart of the business doesn’t always ring everyone’s career bell.
The fact that they should wish to render their current position and the status they derive from it obsolete — a planned professional obsolescence — seems confusing to some, demeaning to others and otherwise simply, quietly terrifying to those who have been on the 'S' mission for so long.
Success for most sustainability people (and their CSR cousins for that matter) is surely achieved at the moment that all of those smart, systemic, cultural, operational, environmental and social practices, policies and processes they have been championing for years finally become an invisible seamless part of the standard functions of the business (or as one Kellogg ELT member said to me once in a meeting — simply just the way that business does business.).
Overcoming the purpose paradox
Hear more from Carol Cone on how B2B and B2C companies are implementing purpose — and what may be holding them back — at SB'20 Long Beach.
I would go further: I would celebrate that ‘moment’ with some form of International Award system and accreditation that recognizes the real Transformation the moment augers.
The award would celebrate the transformation (both of the person and the business itself) heralded by a sustainability person moving their 'S' skills and expertise invisibly and indelibly to the heart of that business. Also because it would show that the sustainability profession can move from a support to a leadership function. In that way each sustainability person develops a new focus, seeking to be the living embodiment of the right kind of positive obsolescence.
Of course there will be teething problems. When anyone party finally shakes off the mindset and strategies of opposition to take on a leadership role, it takes some time for it to also shake out those who ‘hide’ in opposition; rather the provocateur in the shadows than the leader in the stark light.
In that way the sustainability profession would finally become a true reflection of the qualities in both products and lifestyles it compels the rest of the world to embrace: either that of a singular sturdy, unwavering and enduring utility designed for fluid existence from cradle to cradle — or that of a single thing that propagates multiple by-product life cycles and strategies of reuse, recycling, repairing or retasking.
This ability to build in positive obsolescence should not be a stretch for any of us professionally as it seems to present few issues to us personally.
In our own private lives, the slightest whiff of our obsolete selves wafting into view and suddenly we’re a whirlwind of re-creation — everything thrown at a new model us — starting with a new look, a makeover, a killer pair of shoes, a new hairstyle. Then it is support pants, shaving and waxing (come on gents, don’t be coy, you do), non-surgery lifts, strenuous gym regimes, two-day starvation diets replaced by Neanderthal diets and then nips and tucks abound. (Or at its least, a chin gym from a catalogue perhaps?)
There are trillion-dollar industries wholly based on the fact that we’re mostly quietly terrified of being ousted by a better smarter genetic model of humanity in our everyday life.
So why not perhaps point a little of that at one’s professional persona — especially if one works in the one profession which should know better than most what smart obsolescence looks like — one based on transformation, regeneration and improvement.
In doing so, sustainability people would be applying the smartest evolutionary strategies they know to themselves. If they don’t, the brightness of the future becomes questionable. There are many specialist sector and discipline professionals who can tell them what it feels like to miss the evolution train; many who know the price to pay for refusing to adapt, many who are now contemplating the professional landfill stretching out in front of them.
Sustainability people need to apply all of their brain power and every ounce of diplomatic skill they have (or that they buy in) to render their own ‘Sell By’ date obsolete.
They need to ‘opt in’ to being an inextricable part of the transformative and regenerative engine in every brand and business. They need to be sitting at the heart of the action when a brand or business is trying figure out new qualitative growth strategies, not clinging to an outmoded professional signifier or tribal colour, abdicating the trials of leadership to some other, and then sitting at the edge in some fit of professional pique.
Hopefully 2014 will usher in a new, evolutionary professional dawn — or there might just be a lot of babies on that bathwater landfill.
This post first appeared on the Thin Air Factory blog on December 31, 2013.