Organizational Change
Why Business Culture Should Be the Ultimate Aim of Sustainability Leaders

Business schools play a critical role in society.

They support the continual evolution of our economies, the industries that shape them, the people that lead them, and the thinking behind it all.

But it’s not just a role. It’s also a responsibility.

In today’s hotter, scarcer, and more open world (to borrow from Andrew Winston’s The Big Pivot), that responsibility is greater than ever. More than at any other time in history, humanity is collectively aware of its impact on the planet. We know that our current actions, if left unchecked, will lead to unknown disruptions of life on earth.

Inaction involves vast and potentially catastrophic risks, while the opportunities for innovators and their solutions are massive. Companies that evolve their businesses and brands towards a sustainable future “Goldilocks style” — not too fast, but not too slow — will thrive. Those that don’t, risk disruption and even failure. The same goes for entrepreneurs, new business models, and investors.

The centers and institutes featured in this series strive to provide the thought leadership and focused research efforts within business schools that are required to evolve our models and thinking. They are the ones teaching future managers. They are the ones advising, collaborating with, and learning from current executives about how to create value and be responsive to the needs of society at the same time.

But business and business education is only in the second phase en route to the type and scale of change that’s needed.

Some Historical Perspective

Several important efforts catalyzed dialogue and change during this period. Most notable were the World Resources Institute’s Business Environment Learning and Leadership program, The Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, and the formation of Net Impact, which now has more than 60,000 student and professional members who want to use their careers to create positive change in the world.

In the mid- to late-1990s, several business schools including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School launched efforts connecting sustainability to students, companies, and research. These endeavors ran parallel to increasing trends in business sustainability efforts, reporting and standards, as well as consumer awareness.

But sustainability hadn’t hit the mainstream. It wasn’t in headlines. Climate change was far from accepted. And the beginning of Walmart’s commitment to sustainability was still years away.

Around 2010, we entered phase two, as sustainability became more mainstream, yet still isolated.

The landscape had changed dramatically; many business schools and businesses had strong efforts and programs underway. Almost every top 20 business school promoted opportunities for students to incorporate sustainability into their MBAs. Sustainability was a well-recognized topic in the press, and the public in general was becoming more aware of the need for change in how we produce and consume.

Now in 2015, management education and the ways that companies innovate solutions are at a critical turning point. Information is ubiquitous. Educational models are being turned upside down. Companies seek leaders with different skillsets and knowledge. And we are all trying to figure out if and when enough real change will occur, and how to thrive in that shift towards a sustainable future.

What’s the Next Bold Step?

To reach phase three, sustainability must be infused, integrated, and interconnected.

We need to engage across boundaries — between business school departments and programs, across university campuses, throughout companies, and across industries. Faculty research must find ways to connect, share, and collaborate on these “wicked problems.” Corporate departments and business units must infuse these issues into their strategic planning and operational execution in a cohesive way. Competitors and regulators must find ways to move forward for growth and for the planet.

However, business schools and businesses remain siloed. Our centers support interested students and faculty, and we engage with sustainability leaders in industry (Like us, many of these businesses or professionals are trying to get the rest of their industries or organizations onboard).

There are absolutely exceptions, but for the most part we’re preaching to the choir. We cater to students and work with businesses already seeking to contribute to a sustainable future. It’s time for the choir to convince leadership to set a new culture.

As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” To infuse and integrate sustainability thinking, organizational leadership must foster a culture that starts with embracing the true needs of society. The message is: If business takes care of society, it will be rewarded and prosper in return.

This culture shift also has the power to break down silos. Sustainability risks and opportunities transcend organizational units, and thus a culture that’s truly aligned on serving society’s needs will, by necessity, find ways to move in concert.

To turn our global economies far enough and fast enough requires leadership and passionate collaboration from the top (CEOs, presidents, provosts, and deans) and throughout (faculty, managers, students, front line employees). It also requires authenticity, engagement and investment.

We’re seeing examples of this culture, in schools and in companies, but it’s still the exception. This series and the overall work spotlighted by Sustainable Brands show what’s possible. It’s time to collectively push harder toward the tipping point; toward real solutions, and ever more innovative ones; toward a place where a truly sustainable and thriving economy are the rule, not the exception.

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