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Organizational Change
New Leadership Paradigms Fuel ‘Great Migration’ to Regenerative Business Future

Insights shared throughout the week at SB’23 San Diego highlighted the organizational shifts occurring — and those still needed — to bring a resilient future to life.

Private sector plays pivotal role in empowering women and girls to lead in a more resilient future

L-R: Lauren Williams, Shannon O'Shea, Jane Ewing and Erin Smith

On Tuesday afternoon, the third annual Women’s Leadership Lunch took place in a packed ballroom with an energized crowd. Moderated by Lauren N. Williams, Deputy Editor, Race and Equity at The Guardian US, women leading sustainability efforts in different sectors explored how today’s sustainability professionals and brands can and are empowering more women and girls to become the trailblazers that will lead us to a more sustainable tomorrow.

The private sector plays a crucial role in championing a more resilient future through its widespread support for women and girls. Many companies have already embraced this opportunity and are taking concrete steps at the organizational level to enable the growth and success of women in leadership positions. Some have devised effective ways to invest in innovative and regenerative solutions that aid women and girls in communities bearing the brunt of climate change and social injustices. Furthermore, others are driving social change through brand-driven communications that challenge societal norms, inspiring more women to harness their unique power to influence the world around them.

When asked how companies are using their scale for good, Jane Ewing — SVP of Sustainability at Walmart — asserted that it starts with the customer. About half of Walmart’s customers are women, who make over 80 percent of purchase decisions. Women are also a significant portion of Walmart’s employee base — so, they are an important constituency for the retailer. It employs a shared-value approach in that it explicitly addresses different stakeholders — consumers, suppliers and even the planet. Ewing commented that organizations need to create opportunities for women to advance; Walmart offers various professional-growth opportunities through education, training and promotions. While currently only 34 percent of corporate officers are women, Ewing maintains that it demonstrates huge progress for the company. From the supplier base, Walmart creates opportunities for women-owned businesses through its supplier diversity group. Through its “open call,” female-owned companies that manufacture in the US have been able to gain distribution of products — such as wine and cosmetics — without the necessity of scale. On the philanthropic side, the Walmart Foundation provides grants to female smallholder farmers in the Global South — particularly in India — to build business capabilities and resiliency.

Driving Internal Organizational Alignment and Better Cross-Functional Collaboration

Join us as leaders from Daggerwing Group, General Mills, J. Lohr Vineyards, Sylvain and Caribou Coffee explore aspects of evolving internal company governance, culture and collaboration that enable stronger connections with consumers across generations and with evolving mindsets — Wed, May 8, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

Shannon O'Shea, SVP of Sustainability at WE Communications, shared insights from after current client Microsoft established its Climate Innovation Fund (CIF) — which invests in nascent technologies such as sustainable aviation fuel. In Africa, the CIF helped foster biofuel as a “main market” for lower-income communities. This is important because cooking with oil is bad for the environment and generates indoor air pollution that leads to health issues, especially among women and girls. O’Shea elaborated by recounting that when Microsoft — a company with global name recognition — established its CIF, it prompted investors and others in the sector to learn about potential participatory opportunities for creating impact. In turn, telling these stories helps build awareness, a market and demand — bringing tremendous sustainability efforts from the fringe into the mainstream.

Continuing with the theme of community, William asked the panel how brands can benefit people in local communities. Erin Smith, Sustainability Strategy Executive of Business Banking & Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America, responded that her company provides prepared training for women and minorities in entrepreneurship to help build their business acumen and leadership skills. To date, B of A has implemented over 1 million hours of training — which has impacted more than 120,000 entrepreneurs across 140 countries. Smith underscored the importance of data, because “you cannot move what you have not measured.” The bank has facilitated the creation of over 21,000 jobs across the US with its financial investment to different funds. Furthermore, Bank of America has made a $1.5 trillion commitment in partnership with clients to global sustainable finance — which is anchored on environmental and social initiatives including carbon capture, clean transportation, affordable housing and gender equality.

With operations in 11,000 communities around the world, Walmart is a key part of many of those communities — it is often the largest employer in a community; and it plays an important role in providing people access to affordable food. Walmart community leaders support the stores, so its employees (referred to as “associates”) are embedded as a part of the community. Local leaders have autonomy to give grants to communities based on local needs. Also, Walmart partners with source suppliers to ensure sustainable practices such as fair wages. One example is sourcing Pacific Island tuna for Walmart’s private-label brand. One goal is to keep this protein affordable, ensuring the sustainable choice is the affordable choice. Ewing stated, “we can’t make people pay a premium for something different” – “different” being sustainable, in this case. She added, “we can’t be a big corporate coming in and telling people what to do” but really need to “listen and understand the issues on the ground.”

The conversation then shifted to pragmatic considerations in the role, with the question about how to handle external pushback and real threats — legislatively or otherwise. Smith succinctly offered “don’t push; but pivot” and followed up with an example: B of A bankers are trained to go to market with the business case for initiatives, instead of getting caught up in the external discourse or backlash. If a client is not receptive, Smith elaborated, then the company’s bankers pursue conversations about other business needs based on client priorities. She continued by indicating that shifts in the marketplace occur when younger investors want investments to be purposeful as well as profitable. These younger investors apply the same principle to the workforce as they have an affinity for purposeful work and companies. Companies that align their business models to a sustainable mission are in a better position to attract and retain top talent.

Ewing built on this by saying that the business case is a good starting place. Walmart executive leaders genuinely believe in the shared-value approach and buy into the business case, even though others in the ecosystem challenge it. She advises that it goes back to listening — especially listening to the harshest critics and meeting them where they are in their thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a catalyst for change among naysayers in that normally dismissed sustainability considerations — including package reduction and innovative materials — became crucial for ongoing operations.

The discussion then turned to specific personal practices that helped professional progression. Ewing reflected on her realization to be willing to go on an unexpected path and that it’s okay to ask for responsibilities that are not linear career-wise. She shared that “your career is a lattice and not a ladder” is a learned message for her. And for young people in other functions, Ewing advises them to be a champion of sustainability in their area.

When the conversation shifted to new trends, O’Shea recounted the fact that we have all witnessed — coming through the pandemic — the demand coming from core stakeholders for more action on sustainability issues; and the demand is particularly strong from younger people. O’Shea recalled her work at UNICEF, where SDG educational materials were created and distributed almost a decade ago. She noted that now these young people are customers and employees who are demanding action in the workplace and in the public dialogue, and voting with their wallets. O’Shea sees this as a positive “norm shift.”

From a brand communications perspective, O’Shea counseled that brands need to be honest and transparent. Transparency helps foster trust, particularly when brands communicate difficulties along the journey. She maintained that brands can’t just be about pledges and commitments, but need to regularly convey how these commitments are being operationalized and progress made against them. Sustainability needs to be integrated into what everyone is thinking about, regardless of their position.

Smith added that everyone has a role in the transition to a more socially conscious society. For her, sustainability is “the intersectionality of people, planet and prosperity,” and companies need to find their own intersectionality. Lastly, Smith underscored that it is critical to embed sustainability throughout the organization as part of business as usual.

Closing out the discussion, Ewing purported the importance of having leaders truly engaged and accountable. One way is to have leaders listen to groups of younger employees and customers to understand what sustainability really means to these constituencies. Additionally, setting goals and measurements similar to financial goals is key to embedding the goals into the business. She underscored that collaboration and thinking about all players across the value chain can help us move further faster.

After all, the urgency is now for the community of current and emerging sustainability practitioners of all genders to build positive, cross-functional and cross-sector relationships to find much-needed solutions to persistent environmental and social issues.

Organizational health: Creating the conditions for the ‘Great Migration'

Tre’ Cates

In this fast-paced session, John Fullerton — founder of the Capital Institute — and nRhythm founder Tre’ Cates explained the importance of organizational health in creating the conditions for a society transition they call the "Great Migration" — a term they use to describe the shift from the current economic paradigm, which is based on extraction and exploitation, to a regenerative paradigm that is based on co-creation and collaboration.

Fullerton and Cates explained that our current economic model is breaking down due to its unsustainability — as evidenced by the decline of the Living Planet Index, the increasing wealth gap, and high levels of employee disengagement.

They argue that the only way to create a more sustainable future is to shift to a regenerative paradigm — one that is based on the principles of life. Living systems are characterized by their ability to self-define, set boundaries, regenerate, adapt and create emergent outcomes. They believe that organizations need to be healthy in order to make this shift. A healthy organization is one that is aligned with the principles of life — one that is purpose-driven, collaborative and adaptive.

Fullerton and Cates offered a number of suggestions for how organizations can create the conditions for the Great Migration, including:

  • Shifting from a product-centric to a process-centric view of sustainability

  • Redesigning organizations based on the principles of life — creating organizations that are purpose-driven, collaborative and adaptive.

  • Empowering employees to participate in regenerative processes — giving employees the freedom and the resources they need to be creative and to contribute to the organization's regenerative goals.

The two concluded by stating that the Great Migration is not just a shift in economic thinking — it is also a shift in consciousness. It is a shift from a mindset of separation to a mindset of connection — from a mindset of exploitation to a mindset of co-creation.

The Great Migration is a call to action, they concluded. It is a call for us to create a more sustainable future for ourselves and for generations to come.