Sustainability Leadership: Push, Don't Pull

Sustainability Leadership: Push, Don't Pull

As Zainab Al Amin (VP of Digital Transformation at Microsoft) pointed out at #LEAP22, the greatest challenge that humanity is facing right now is sustainability. We have no doubt that technological innovations will play an essential role in our ability to move through this time — but climate tech won’t get very far if it isn’t paired with some serious changes in behaviour and policy.

Al Amin outlined some of the ways that Microsoft is working towards its sustainability targets; from using dashboards in smart buildings to monitor and reduce energy consumption, to introducing a company carbon tax as a means to fuel innovation (and increase awareness of carbon emissions) within the enterprise. 

Crucial to all of these changes, however, are the people who work for Microsoft. “Our employees are at the heart of all of this,” Al Amin said, “they keep pushing us to achieve more.”

A collective’s role in driving change

This particular point struck a chord — because often, when people talk about a corporation setting sustainability targets (and implementing a strategy to hit those targets) the conversation is focused on top-down leadership. Some external pressure from policy or from consumers pushes a company’s leaders into a corner until they respond, and then they demand that their employees do the work to meet the targets. 

Or at a broader industry level, an innovator develops a technology that they think can change the world, and we talk about it as if it’s the answer to all our problems — before we’ve even found out whether or not people actually want to use that tech. 

When it comes to sustainability, the cultural changes needed to adopt and implement climate tech are often so huge that this conventional notion of leadership seems…well, limited. 

Since 2015, the UN has listed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals. But none of those 17 goals can be achieved on its own; from clean water to zero hunger and quality education, they’re all integrated and interrelated aspects of human life on earth. Sustainable economic growth and development, for example, can’t be achieved if gender equality is not also achieved. Affordable and clean energy can only be achieved with economic growth and decent work opportunities. Responsible consumption can only be achieved if quality education is achieved. And so on — basically, we have no hope of hitting just one meaningful sustainability target on its own; we’ve got to go for a holistic approach to changing the way we live, work, and consume. 

Within a corporation, change can only happen if the team really believes in that change, and works together to achieve it. For the planet (or at least for the continuation of our species on the planet), change can only happen if people collectively believe in it, and work together to achieve it. 

We’re not saying that climate policy isn’t important, or that companies shouldn’t set targets, or that the weight of responsibility for slowing climate change should be placed on the shoulders of individuals. We are saying that a company with sustainability goals should work with its team, listen to its team, and welcome its team as a collective driving force of change. 

Instead of being pulled along by leadership, sustainability goals will be achievable when everyone within a collective is pushing for them. 

Who’s behind the innovator?

We love entrepreneurs. We wrote about them last week, in fact. But as we face the realities of climate change, it’s important to remember that no innovator exists in a vacuum — and that no innovation will be successful without support, investment, and trust from a larger collective of human beings. 

As the poet John Donne put it all the way back in 1624, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” 

No tech innovator is an island. And no technology will have a major impact without people who believe in it and want to use it. 

In the management industry, research and investment usually goes into trying to increase workforce engagement in sustainability strategies that have already been put in place by leadership teams. Because, as Peter Lacy (Global Sustainability Services Lead and Chief Responsibility Officer at Accenture) wrote in the journal Corporate Governance, ‘‘when employees are engaged with their company’s sustainability strategy, they proactively identify, communicate and pursue opportunities to execute the strategy.”

Now though, in 2022, it’s time to involve teams in sustainability strategy at an earlier stage, instead of just persuading them to get on board with it after the fact. At a corporate level, this means doing as Al Amin does, and allowing strategy to be driven and challenged by employees. 

And at a technological level, it means breaking down hierarchies in a similar way: instead of placing the innovator on a pedestal, we need innovators on the ground. We need tech leaders, those creative inventors and entrepreneurs, to work directly with the people who will actually use climate tech and drive socio-cultural change. Because we’re not going to meet global sustainability goals by hiding our innovators away in secret rooms. We’re going to meet those goals collectively, through collaboration and cooperation. 

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