The leader evolution: three unexpected qualities for transformative change

Image courtesy of Sustainable Brands

Image courtesy of Sustainable Brands

In our experience, the challenge to advance sustainability in business is not a technological or logistical one, but a human one. We can’t count the number of times working in companies where more sustainable solutions existed, but the organization still resisted.

So we are fascinated by the human factors in sustainability:
why people go into it… as it’s not an obvious or glamorous career choice
what keeps them going… as the challenges can often seem overwhelming
how they bring others along… since the work requires facing many sceptics along the way.

Recently at Sustainable Brands Paris, we were fortunate to see how the next generation of leaders are evolving, giving us a glimpse of what it will take to shepherd companies and brands toward the next level of sustainability toward deeper value.

Observing the most thoughtful and inspiring leaders, those at the helm of brands and companies breaking ground in uncharted territory such as Danone, Patagonia, P&G, TerraCycle and TOMS, three unexpected factors stood out:

  1. A disarmingly honest view of their place in the world

  2. A willingness to be vulnerable and step into the unknown

  3. Elevating others

Here is a taste of what each factor involves, and how these leaders manifested it:

1) A disarmingly honest view of their place in the world

  • These leaders acknowledge the enormity of the challenge. Erin Meezan of Interface spoke about getting out of “CSR speak, incremental goals” and toward “solving a big environmental challenge” which led to their new company purpose: to reverse global warming.

  • They ask hard questions, which can often lead to groundbreaking solutions. Lisa Pike of Patagonia spoke of how the company’s new bolder mission statement to “save our home planet” came from questioning their already ambitious agenda to capture the urgency of environmental issues. Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, recounted how the idea for the new Loop initiative came about from “a very honest conversation” about recycling, and getting to “the root cause” of waste rather than addressing the symptoms.

  • And they speak clearly and plainly about the consequences. Emanuel Faber of Danone didn’t mince words when he said “brands are at risk of being meaningless. If we are not bold enough, we will just die.”

2) A willingness to be vulnerable and step into the unknown

  • There is no roadmap for the sustainability journey, so many leaders spoke of the importance of stepping into discomfort. Lisa Pike spoke of a common saying at Patagonia “if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not doing the work.” Erin Meezan of Interface echoed “in that uncomfortableness comes the innovation, the challenging thinking.”

  • An openness to be vulnerable is also needed when listening carefully in a customer-focused way, especially if it’s not what you want to hear. At Interface, the company’s mission was first shaken up by a customer question and they “didn’t have an answer.” At TOMS, they are willing to go out on a limb on issues their customers care about, even if it invites criticism: “if you don’t want to be criticized, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

  • This means being honest about not having the answers, and making mistakes along the way. Emanuel Faber of Danone reiterated how “the boldest move of all is to acknowledge that you are not perfect, and that you will never be perfect.” He spoke of fighting in his own company to allow teams to say “I’m not perfect. I will never be. I will need your help to create the new future.”

3) Elevating others  

  • Humility has led these leaders to recognize all the people required to bring about change. Faber of Danone said “there’s nothing else but people behind the brands.” At Interface, founder Ray Anderson encouraged each employee to act and “brighten the corner where you are”.

  • Many of these leaders were also refreshingly honest about their own limitations. Virginie Helias of P&G shared that she looks for external advocates to bring along ideas, saying “they are more effective than me.”

  • And they willingly give credit to others doing the work. At Patagonia, they are sensitive to not “parachute in on top of all the groups that have been doing the work in the community,” said Lisa Pike. Emanuel Faber of Danone paused his own speech to acknowledge how he was inspired by Ray Anderson of Interface: “He started my own sustainable business journey. I never could meet him before he died, and want to pay him tribute.”

Looking across these factors, it’s easy to note that all three require an internal transformation. In fact, many mentioned a personal journey for themselves and colleagues. Virginie Helias spoke about getting buy-in in the business through slow “awakenings” of various brand heads. Emanuel Faber said something that most CEOs would not be found uttering:

“It’s not only a brand journey, it’s a journey of self-awareness of who we are as a person in this world. I find this constant disruption revisiting these elements of consciousness as being a truly rich personal journey.”

Emanuel Faber, CEO Danone

We are thrilled to observe these often unconventional leadership qualities, and look forward to seeing more leaders take an honest, vulnerable approach to advance sustainability in their organizations.

Julia Sherbakov