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Long-term sustainable success relies on business transformation

Raconteur | Oliver Balch | June 1, 2021

lowering carbon footprint leader priorities - Long-term sustainable success relies on business transformation

Change is again in the air. The world faces multiple pending crises, from an irreversible climate catastrophe and a biodiversity implosion through to growing inequality and a pandemic-crippled economy. The promise of corporate sustainability is as much about securing business advantage as saving the planet, yet neither promise will be realised without systemic change

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself / herself,” mused Russian author Leo Tolstoy in 1900.

Future resilience

The promise of sustainable business is twofold. First, is risk mitigation. By reducing their impact on society and the environment, companies can hedge against the negative operational and regulatory costs attached to pending crises.  In a major new report by the council, Vision 2050: Time to Transform, focusing on the need to reform capitalism, Bakker warns that even a single threat like climate change or the loss of nature could wipe out companies’ future “licence to operate”. He adds: “And if there is one thing that we have all learnt from the COVID pandemic, it is how interconnected these challenges are.”

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The wake-up call that COVID-19 has delivered to business is echoed in recent research. In a survey by software firm Dassault Systèmes, two in three (65 per cent) Dutch and UK business leaders in the life sciences and energy sectors see the pandemic as an opportunity to “reshape” their companies on more sustainable grounds.

Strategy design

Don’t think you can improvise on the hop, she adds: “Making only reactive decisions or chasing trends are unlikely to result in a robust strategy that can optimise performance and impact in the long term.”

Treating sustainability as an optional add-on won’t cut it either. Reducing the subject to emissions, charity or any other single business issue, however important, is a recipe for failure, says Trevor Hutchings, director of strategy at UK professional services firm Gemserv.

With sustainability, it’s all or nothing, he argues:

“Sustainability needs to be hard-wired into the company purpose, strategy and commercial model so it’s treated as an integral part of running a business.”

“The transformation of systems does not take place in silos, it is the result of actions taken across multiple industries and throughout societies.”

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Effective implementation

As personal experience teaches, transforming oneself is no easy task.  Success is only possible with leadership. Hundreds of perfectly conceived sustainability plans currently lie gathering dust on hard drives because employees knew their bosses’ hearts were never really in it.

“One of the biggest challenges leaders face when pursuing sustainable business strategies is authenticity: walking the talk”

says Jen Rice, executive coach and strategist. Leaders first need to ask themselves what values they really stand for and what positive contribution they want to make, she advises. Find this sense of “felt purpose” – Rice calls her business-leader clients “rebels with a cause” – and authenticity will follow.

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