Leading a Sustainable Business

I was talking to a contact at Henley Business School yesterday about a programme called Sustainable Leadership. This led initially got me thinking about Green production / economics1; this is obviously very important but didn’t seem to be the kind of issue I was used to hearing CEOs worrying about. Our conversation moved on and for the next hour or so I kept linking ideas back to this theme, and I thought it might be valuable to share this inner journey.

The first thing that came up was that many leaders are very absorbed in sorting out today’s crises and will tell you they are “too busy” to deal with tomorrow’s potential issues and problems. However, if you think of farmers, they can never say they are too busy with this season’s work to worry about next season. They know that they have to act today and prepare for tomorrow or their cycle of production will stop. Leaders who can’t make the space to think and act strategically are in exactly this position. So a little private challenge‚Ķ “How much time have you spent in the last week being strategic?” Was it 10% or less? (This would represent half a day) I suspect many people, if they are honest, would fail this minimal test. If you aren’t finding time to focus on what will drive your future success, then the chances are no one is doing so.

Our farmer also has to husband his resources; he has to make sure the fields are free of weeds, fed and fertilised, boundaries in good condition and that he has access to the necessary resources. He makes sure that he uses the best seed to grow from and strives to improve the blood-stock by only breeding from animals that have the right genetic stuff. Are you looking after your resources and improving the genetics?

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck that which is planted.” Bible

He knows there is a right time to act; a time to plant seeds, a time to harvest, a time to let resources recover. Modern business tends to have a single pace these days – Flat out! The thing is that human beings can’t sustain this and will burn-out. The more willing and more capable they are, the more they are at risk of this phenomenon2. In fact, if you are a high achieving business leader the chances are you are also at real risk. How much quality time are you spending with you family? How many promises to them get broken? How invested are you in the idea of being the successful business person? These are danger indicators of this syndrome.

In order for your business to be sustainable you need to have more than a single string to your bow. The collapse of the world banking system shows how quickly colossuses can fall. Oil prices have doubled and then halved in a matter of months, this too was unthinkable a little while ago. You need to have enough spread of products, suppliers and skilled staff so that you can sustain things in these times of cataclysmic change. Do you have a disaster recovery plan? Have you conducted a risk analysis recently? Is Change your ally or your enemy?

“What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there not for competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis.” W. Edwards Deming

In order for a business to be truly sustainable it can’t be greedy. No one likes greed and we will always move away from people and businesses who appear to behave this way. We are hardwired by thousands of years of evolution to value those who share resources. The modern, sustainable business must not only be a winner, but must share those fruits with its workers, its suppliers and the society it is part of. You need to be thinking Win:Win:Win.

“Unless both sides win, no agreement can be permanent.” Jimmy Carter

So sustainability involves the creation of real value, sharing the fruits of this endeavour with those who help create and consume it. It involves focusing on today’s harvest and tomorrow’s seeds. It requires vision. It requires respect and genuine nurturing. Is what you are doing sustainable?


1. The Story of Stuff: a beautiful piece of communication about Green issues
2. Burnout