Opinion: Business executives must lead on sustainability

By Neil Gaught, strategy advisor, author and conceiver of Single Organizing Idea
We need more leaders prepared to step-up and take charge of the transition to sustainability, argues strategy advisor Neil Gaught

Sustainability is a hot topic across all business sectors – climate change, the pandemic, societal upheavals and the economy has focused minds. There is a growing understanding that economic, societal, human and environmental sustainability are all linked and that the race to Net Zero is not the full story nor the silver bullet. 

In recent discussions with business leaders, it’s clear that there is more cognisance around the idea that sustainability, in every sense of the word, needs to be hard-wired into the very core of business plans.

Equally, there is a detectable increasing realisation that unless this transition to a sustainable footing is carried out relatively quickly, there is a real risk of being left behind and losing relevance amongst key stakeholders whose preference for a better, more equitable world grows daily. Businesses today find themselves on a burning platform, where it’s not about if they grasp the new reality and make a decision to change, but when, and if they will take the leap in time.

What is needed today are more leaders with a clear understanding of how fast the world is changing and how critical pivoting and transitioning today is to securing success tomorrow. We need more leaders prepared to step-up and take on resistance from the business-as-usual brigade. More than ever, we need leaders who have the courage to call out and consign old ideas to history and embrace new ideas, new thinking, and new approaches. 

But it’s not about just making the right noises – what is required is action. The transparency of modern social media means that no company should think words are enough. The public is watching, and fluffy purpose statements are not going to cut it. Nor is ‘aspiring’ to do better in the future; a status that was shared with me by the vast majority of an audience I recently addressed at a Manufacturing & Supply Chain conference in the UK. 

Companies approaching sustainability from a good place

I believe that many businesses are approaching sustainability from a good place, but they run into hot water when it comes to the execution. For some it’s a case of ‘analysis paralysis’ – they simply become overwhelmed with the idea that change is too hard and end up never getting started. It’s not surprising given that they have been told repeatedly by an overpaid management consultancy sector that thrives on selling complexity (read time) that change is tough, the benefits are not immediate, and people don’t like it.

It’s all a myth. People change quickly when the change is important, meaningful, and it makes sense to them. Just look at how the majority of people rapidly adjusted and adapted their behaviours to ensure their own health and the health of society at large regardless of their circumstances during the pandemic.

The same urgency to adapt and change and meet the challenges so graphically laid out in SDGs in the IPCC’s latest report need to be shared today and the very best-positioned people to do that are the leaders of businesses. For it is they who have the resources, the reach and the brands that will influence the future.

They will need to ensure that sustainability is not just a bolt-on activity, a tick-box exercise, or a matter of compliance. It must be central to the way the entire business is structured, operates, and communicates with its staff, suppliers, investors and with society as a whole.

For those who want to get started right now, take the free SOI Confidence Scorecard.

About the Author, Neil Gaught

Neil Gaught is a strategy advisor, award-winning author and conceiver of Single Organizing Idea (SOI®). With his team he works globally to deliver a totally holistic solution for change-makers who want to accelerate their progress and leverage sustainability as a driver of business success. For more information visit www.soi.global

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