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Why It's Time to Reframe the Role of Sustainability Leaders

My first big CSR/sustainability event was the 2010 Net Impact Conference - I had been invited there to speak on a panel on intrapreneurship, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on a number inspiring and insightful talks. One of the sessions I attended was an interview with BSR CEO Aron Cramer. As I recall, much of that hopeful, engaging discussion centered on transparency — a topic that’s close to my heart.

My first big CSR/sustainability event was the 2010 Net Impact Conference - I had been invited there to speak on a panel on intrapreneurship, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on a number inspiring and insightful talks. One of the sessions I attended was an interview with BSR CEO Aron Cramer. As I recall, much of that hopeful, engaging discussion centered on transparency — a topic that’s close to my heart.

The talk left me wanting to pick Aron’s brain, so I stuck around afterwards with the hope of having a brief conversation with him. Aron was very gracious, and we discussed the yawning gap between the current state of business and the one needed to confront the myriad wicked problems faced by humanity, and he introduced me to the idea of “radical transparency,” a term that has really stuck with me. I probably wouldn’t recall any details of the discussion had it not been for the way that Aron lit up when discussing radical transparency. It was as if we had hit on the word of the day and the duck had dropped down on Groucho Marx’s old TV show, “You Bet Your Life.”

The concept of radical transparency is pretty simple: It’s the idea that firms will endeavor to be as transparent as they possibly can, both externally with customers, communities and competitors and internally throughout the organization. It’s akin to asking a fully armored knight to strip down to a fig leaf. This is an idea I fully support, and it’s one that helped prompt this post.

I saw Andrew Winston speak recently and his passion reminded me of the conversation with Aron Cramer. Andrew echoed the message that I’ve heard repeatedly and pondered frequently over the past couple of years — that we’re not doing nearly enough to make business a viable part of the solution for the myriad social and environmental problems that we continue to stack up against ourselves. In fact, business is often the primary factor creating and exacerbating these issues. It doesn’t have to be this way. Business could — and probably needs to — be the leading force for change. As Anneliza Humlen writes, the end goal of our efforts has to be about the impact we create in the world.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay between CSR/sustainability leaders, their firms, society and the environment. Our circumstances dictate that we move fast and light, while experimenting and scaling up workable solutions, but corporate dictates often get in the way of such efforts. We also need the ability to collaborate with whoever might best help us craft workable solutions, but the same controls can hinder this as well.

Uncharted territory

We need to rethink this. We’re going to have to head into uncharted territory and we have to be able to collaborate. To do this, I think we need to look to Jon Husband’s idea of wirearchy — which he defines loosely as “the power and effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration … taking responsibility individually and collectively rather than relying on traditional hierarchical status” — as a guide for how we should organize our efforts. When we have to work through multiple levels of management for approval, change tends to happen rather slowly. We don’t have time for that.

With many governments entrenched in us vs them battles, and most individuals having little say over the use of our precious resources, driving change through corporations might be our best bet. With that in mind, I’d like to propose something that will likely seem a bit revolutionary. What if we enabled our CSR/sustainability leaders to interact as direct conduits between the firm and external interests, on matters of social and environmental concern?

These people are already asked to fill this role in a quasi-fashion, but the aforementioned corporate controls keep them on a short leash. Communications professionals act as intermediaries, but hierarchical structures, divisional boundaries, and policies designed to mitigate risk greatly limit the breadth and depth of information that can be shared for fear of giving up corporate advantages.

This approach may make sense on other fronts, but in the face of mounting social and environmental problems, we have to take a different tack in managing what I consider to be the “back end” of our businesses. Unless you’re running a sustainability consultancy, the express purpose of your business is likely not to minimize waste or otherwise conserve resources. Hopefully, it’s an important part of what you do in going to market, but I doubt many firms would claim it as their source of viability.


If we made CSR/sustainability leaders into a form of ombudsperson, they could become the intermediaries for discussions between the firm and external interests on social and environmental lines, while continuing to do the work to improve the firm’s performance along those lines. This could remove the internal disconnect which often exists today. By doing the talking and the doing, they would also be better positioned to learn and improve on their own performance, while helping to drive best practices throughout the market. This necessitates a side discussion about increasing workload, but let’s get to the point where we agree on the need for this change first.

This approach would require a radically different outlook from corporate leaders. First, it would require them to face the issues and to accept that business has an important role to play in solving them. Second, it would require them to give their ombudspeople the latitude to discuss things that are traditionally kept under wraps.

This would necessitate a dramatic shift from today’s mantra of “secure all information,” but firms could continue to protect business-critical information. Leadership teams could set explicit boundaries so that the ombudspeople, and those engaging with them, would have a clear understanding of what was off limits (We’re not going to ask anyone to divulge the Colonel’s secret recipe). To be clear, the key piece here would be the earnest effort to minimize that which was not shared (Remember the fig leaf?).

This might also necessitate legal changes to protect both the firms that choose to go down this path, management teams, and those taking on these roles. The goal should be to improve on the performance of all businesses, and the acceptance of the idea that we’d no longer compete on the “back end,” although all could strive to gain the upper hand by way of exemplary execution.

If you’re tensing up at the idea of engaging with your competitors in this way, I’ll ask you to consider this: If a business is dependent on such advantages to remain competitive, isn’t that tantamount to saying that it’s not competitive at the things that it is in business to do? For those in that boat, I’d suggest steering clear of this proposition. Otherwise, the water’s fine.

Taking this approach would require a level of cooperation seldom seen in today’s competitive environment, but it’s not impossible. One need only look at the mobilization of the US economy during WWII to see what can be done when we’re sufficiently motivated to work together. This time around we lack a specific enemy to rally against. Actually, that’s not completely true — I think there is an enemy in this fight. With apologies to Winston Churchill, the only thing we have to fear is ourselves. We have to rally ourselves against inertia, skepticism, myopia and heavily entrenched interests (Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my…).

Can we rally for that challenge? I think so, but we might have to sacrifice a bit of relative comfort and we’ll surely have to start working together in ways and at scales previously unimagined. But if we want to hand a desirable, or even livable, world to future generations, we have to muster our capabilities in short order.

This post first appeared on Global CEO on September 10, 2014.


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