4 Challenges Every Sustainability Leader Faces

by | Sep 23, 2013

woofter, jennifer, strategic sustainability consultingRegardless of the leadership role we play, there are common challenges every leader faces as we seek to build an organization or guide a team.

Dr. Bill Donahue, Linked 2 Leadership

If you are leading your organization’s sustainability efforts, pay attention. There are four kinds of challenges that you will encounter — and each will create its own kind of tension. Here’s what to expect:

The Learning Challenge

As Donahue points out, too much fact gathering can result in paralysis from analysis. On the other hand, moving too quickly without thoughtful reflection and information affirms the old adage “haste makes waste.”

We’ve written about the need to balance learning with action here and here. While there is certainly a sense of urgency in tackling sustainability issues, we are strong advocates of intentionally taking a big step back to assess the larger picture, determine options, and understand goals.

Here’s what Donahue says: Usually a new idea needs about 30-60 days to percolate and investigate – then it is time to start shaping some initial experiments, pilot programs or beta tests. Then you can do some trial and error, assess and see if you need to gather more information and what kind of data you need.

The Development Challenge

We’ve talked extensively about how to engage and empower employees (herehere, and here), but Donahue makes an important point that, “if you empower dummies, you get dumb decisions faster!” Sustainability leaders must focus on encouraging employees, but also developing their skills so that they can actually do what needs to get done.

Donahue:  Any development strategy requires attention to the “heart” – passions, motives, dreams – and skill development for the “hands” of every leader. Help an emerging leader know what to do but also why it needs to be done so that people change and the mission is accomplished.

The Reconciliation Challenge

In pursuing sustainability, we must break down old behaviors, stop old habits, and instill new practices. This kind of deep-rooted change inevitably introduces conflict. How sustainability leaders handle that conflict will determine whether, 1) the sustainability problem is solved, and 2) whether the relationship can be rebuilt.

Donahue:  Speak the truth but do it in a gracious, even tone, seeking to understand the other person even as you point out the problem or issue. Give them some space to explain and response, but make sure you speak the whole truth.

The Impact Challenge

There are only so many hours in a day, and sustainability leaders will have to make some tough calls. Here’s the question that Donahue wrestles with: “Do we put more energy building relationships on the team and investing in people or focus on getting the job done with excellence and efficiency?” The answer is that sustainability leaders need to be constantly balancing between focusing on the task and focusing on the people.

Donahue:  And a clear understanding of what success looks like for the project is equally important so that the task is completed with excellence. You can do both.

If you liked this article, you’ll love our free white papers on Sustainable Change ManagementEngaging Employees, and Becoming a Sustainability Champion. (And the best way you can say thanks is to share this article on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn!) Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at@jenniferwoofter. This article was reprinted with permission from Jennifer Woofter.

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