Christina Wong, Director, SustainAbility NYC and Head of Communications interviewed SustainAbility Executive Director Mark Lee about his new book, co-authored with Chris Coulter and David Grayson and published by Routledge, All In: The Future of Business Leadership.
Mark, why did you choose to write this book? And why now?
We wrote All In because it was possible and necessary.
The book was possible because the sustainability field has matured to an extent that the question is no longer ‘What is the business case?’ or ‘Should my organization engage?’ but instead ‘How does going All In on sustainability leadership give business the best change of enduring success?’
Also, we had a tremendous resource at our fingertips, the findings of the GlobeScan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey since 1997. This means All In was inspired by the wisdom of the crowd, specifically the thousands of sustainability experts globally who have responded to the survey over two decades. Comprising views from business, civil society, media, academia, regulators, and government from more than eighty countries, the Leaders Survey provides a unique, well-informed snapshot on best-in-class corporate sustainability leadership, plus perspectives on the leadership traits that will characterize private sector sustainability champions of the future.
All In does not aim at some indefinite future, but at how we address problems from now through 2030.
The book was necessary because the pressure to make society and the economy just and sustainable, quickly, is so great. All In does not aim at some indefinite future, but at how we address problems from now through 2030. This timeframe aligns with major global environmental goals including the ambitions enshrined in the Paris Agreement to keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 °C. It also parallels the wider aims for human and economic development and environmental protection outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Paris Agreement and the SDGs both came into being in 2015, giving humanity fifteen years to make good on their intentions. As we say in the book, a decade and a half is a dangerous length of time: long enough to procrastinate, while close enough for alarm. Success depends on broad participation, tremendous determination, and outstanding leadership. At a moment in history where society seems bent on fracture and dissent, governments are not doing enough. Civil society is aware and committed but lacks power. This leaves it to business to go All In and fully commit to participate, partner, and lead – which should be a natural and obvious choice given sustainability is increasingly imperative to commercial success.
What did you discover?
There was a host of learning, including the identification of three past eras of sustainability leadership: The Harm Reduction Era 1997-2005, The Strategic Integration Era 2006-2015 and The Purpose-Driven Era 2016-Ongoing. We also predict the near-term emergence of The Regenerative Era, in which circular business models essential to sustainability are expected to begin to proliferate. At the heart of the book we present the set of leadership attributes – Purpose, Plan, Culture, Collaboration and Advocacy – that together underpin current best practice in leading companies and represent the essential qualities for corporate sustainability leadership now through 2030.
All In defines the leadership attributes as follows.
These attributes did not emerge at a single point in time. They first materialized individually, with companies discovering and experimenting with them à la carte. While no guarantee, we believe these attributes – engaged collectively, not selectively as in the past – give businesses the best chance of surviving and thriving long-term through the cultivation of the sustainability mindset critical to future commercial success and the more inclusive and sustainable economy we believe is essential for society’s collective future.
Purpose, Plan, Culture and even Collaboration will likely be familiar to readers, business leaders and otherwise. But Advocacy?
It is a great question. While we make the case for the interdependence of the five attributes in our framework, that does not mean they are equally mature.
That’s especially true of Advocacy. While the Economist and Harvard Business Review both wrote about 2017 as the year in which CEO’s became ‘Chief Activist Officers,’ this is still new territory for companies.
Advocacy is not the same as lobbying. Where lobbying is almost entirely about self-interest, Advocacy is in society’s interest.
Given that, the question might be reframed as “Where do companies unfamiliar with Advocacy begin?” First, let me state emphatically, Advocacy is not the same as lobbying. Where lobbying is almost entirely about self-interest, Advocacy is in society’s interest. Self-interest has to be present, or Advocacy can’t be sustained, but Advocacy has to address systems change, which means speaking in favor of norms, rules and laws that support and accelerate sustainable development. Corporate voices will be critical to driving such change in policy and behavior.
You interviewed so many amazing people. What from the interviews really stuck with you?
We so lucky to have so many phenomenal leaders share their perspectives with us. I wish I could tell you about every conversation, but I’ll hold myself to a few highlights.
First, Steve Howard of IKEA, talked about courage. About how sometimes this is simply about having the guts and even the temerity to do what is right even if it is difficult or unusual.
Second, I love the way Hannah Jones of Nike describes the work Nike has done to get sustainability out of its ghetto and make it a synonym for innovation. I believe in that.
I love the way Hannah Jones of Nike describes the work Nike has done to get sustainability out of its ghetto and make it a synonym for innovation. I believe in that.
Mike Barry from Marks & Spencer challenged us. He basically said he was tired of the Leaders Survey results! …Then Mike clarified this is not to disparage today’s leaders but reflects a longing for the day when we are celebrating the progress of thousands of companies, not so few, regardless M&S’s own place among the leaders today.
We talked to people pushing sustainability leadership boundaries and helping embed this agenda in more geographies. This included people like Helen Hai, an amazing Chinese entrepreneur working on economic development in Africa as well as Amy Jadesimi of LADOL in Nigeria.
Some messages were sobering. Colin le Duc of Generation Asset Managementsuggested the rise in hyper global inequality is an existential threat to business and governments, and thus a material issue for investors and companies alike.
And we found inspiration, as in our discussion with Lise Kingo of the UN Global Compact. What was fantastic about talking to Lise, especially given her decades of experience at Novo Nordisk preceding her role at the UN, was the hope she projected. She believes we are better poised to succeed than ever before, thanks especially to the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.
This book will be as good as its application. It will succeed if today’s small cadre of private sector sustainability leaders explodes in size.
This book will be as good as its application. It will succeed if today’s small cadre of private sector sustainability leaders explodes in size. We hope the five attributes, the deep case studies on Unilever and Interface, as well as the learning from dozens of other companies in the book will inspire others and let them become sustainability leaders too. More than anything, All In hopes to influence and motivate the leaders of many more companies to make sustainability central to their strategy and performance.
I want to say how much I appreciated and enjoyed writing All In with Chris and David. I learned so much – they are both such great, thoughtful human beings – and so the best way I can think to end this interview is by offering public thanks.