Creating a New Standard for Doing Well While Doing Good
"How do I find a job in sustainability?”
That’s the #1 question I get asked when teaching or coaching emerging leaders and young professionals. It’s the wrong question. The right question is, “How do I make my job about sustainability?”
I often see professionals struggling with this dilemma: smart, well-intentioned people who want to be successful, make a decent living, and feel valued, but also have a disquieting feeling that the work they do does not address the most important problems in the world. In fact, it may actually, if unwittingly, contribute to them. Is it possible to do well and do good in your day job? The answer is “Yes!” but not with “Business-As-Usual.”
These pressures include a set of largely tacit beliefs about the purpose of a business and how work should be conducted, including the belief that maximizing shareholder value is the only objective for business decision-making. Business-As-Usual also incorporates norms for business conduct that often overlook bad behavior or adverse consequences for the sake of expediency in pursuit of shareholder value.
This mindset sets strong expectations for what professionals should accomplish through their daily work. It prioritizes near-term revenue growth and expense cutting rather than innovation and long term value; neglecting negative externalities that may take decades to manifest, but may ultimately be devastating to the business, community, and environment. It rewards going along with practices that are “normal for our industry” rather than questioning them. It creates expectations for how you “get ahead” and succeed in your career.
But when you go along with Business-As-Usual, knowing that your actions could be creating long-term harm (even if they are legal and typical for your industry), it can create a conflict with your personal values. On one hand you quite naturally want to protect your job and your livelihood. Pushing too hard against the prevailing culture and norms can be career-limiting. On the other hand, bending to those pressures eats away at your sense of purpose and fulfillment, and erodes your sense of wellbeing.
The result is that many professionals feel a nagging tension between their two opposing selves. Oneself does what’s needed to bring success and retain their livelihood; the other-self goes home each night feeling guilty about not doing more good through their work.
It’s tempting to demonize companies, their executives, and their cultures for pressuring professionals to compromise their values for the sake of making a living. But this is an over-simplistic view that lets professionals off the hook too easily and allows them to avoid taking responsibility for initiating change.
While you may be looking to the most senior officers of your organization to initiate change, many corporate executives themselves struggle with this same dilemma of doing well versus doing good. They would like to pursue a sustainability-focused business strategy, but can’t yet see the kind of benefits to their core business that would also satisfy investors. They fear that pursuing sustainability goals could become a distraction, causing the wheels to fall off the enterprise, thus threatening shareholder value (and their own career). Doing good still feels like something extra -- something off to the side, outside the main business. However strategic, sustainability is viewed as philanthropy, which is by definition, not core to the business.
These same executives are also seeking new sources of innovation to stay competitive—the very kind that sustainability strategies can provide. And yet, professionals like you -- the very ones that could help their organizations move beyond Business-As-Usual-- aren’t being tapped to do so.
Too many professionals in this situation resign themselves to coping with the organization as it is, waiting for a miraculous transformation of enlightenment to occur in the corner office. But that rarely happens. And so the business stays stuck in Business-As-Usual. And so you remain torn -- and unfulfilled.
Escaping the Tyranny of Business As Usual
You may be thinking that you need to quit your job to find an organization that is more mission-driven than yours, or one with senior leaders who will be more supportive of bottom-up change initiatives. But the truth is that all organizations and their top leaders are struggling against Business-As-Usual forces, even sustainability icons like Interface and Unilever. Whatever your position, you have opportunities from where you stand to pivot to a positive direction.
The key is not to wait for your boss, or your boss’ boss, to create fulfilling work for you, but instead to realize that you can initiate change in your organization that both advances your career and moves your organization in a direction that creates social and environmental benefits. This requires shifting your own paradigm away from Business-As-Usual and trade-off thinking to embrace your own leadership potential and ‘both-and’ thinking.
This is not easy. It requires confidence, competence, and credibility to be an effective change leader. You need the confidence to know that change is possible and that you can lead innovation from your position within your organization. It requires competence to identify high-leverage opportunities, to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, to build a coalition, to connect your initiative to your organization’s strategy (and value creation), and to make a compelling business case. It also requires that you establish credibility with stakeholders and senior leaders to demonstrate that you have what it takes to produce results, not just fantasize.
Gaining Competence, Confidence, and Credibility
There are a number of ways to build your competence, confidence, and credibility to escape Business-As-Usual, but here are a few suggestions, in order of investment required:
- Join an Affinity Group in your company, industry, or community with like-minded professionals. One excellent place to start is with Net Impact (and their annual conference happening this October in Detroit, MI!)
- Learn and practice the fundamentals of sustainable business through the University of Vermont’s Leading Sustainable Innovation Certificate Program. It takes only eight weeks, does not require you to leave your day job or your home (in fact, you can take it with you -- wherever in the world there is wi-fi!). The program gives you an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of sustainable business from world experts, while immediately applying the principles with a global, virtual team through an intensive, highly realistic business simulation. For less than $2,500 you can earn a certificate from one of the most reputable, sustainable business schools in the world. Registration is due September 17, 2019 for the next program which runs September 23 to November 17, 2019. Register here.
- Gain insight and accelerate leadership skills through service, by immersing yourself in a short-term pro bono assignment like Corporate Champions for Education, implemented by PYXERA Global. Companies can place employees in four-week assignments in emerging and developing markets for $16,000, inclusive of training, travel, and accommodation. Slots are available for the next cohort, which go to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on February 14 - March 14, 2020; commitment is required by September 30, 2019. More here.
- Earn an MBA in Sustainable Business through top universities. Check out the Princeton Review for the ‘Top 10 Green MBA’ programs, based on the programs’ ability to enable students to address environmental, sustainability, and social issues in their careers. The Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont is at the top of that list and offers the Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA), which can be completed in 12 months, including a 3 month, full-time practicum. The practicum can be in service to an existing company or a new enterprise focused on sustainable and inclusive innovation. Tuition for the program is affordable at $32,000 for Vermont residents; $53,000 for out-of-state students.
About the Authors
Matt Mayberry, Ph.D. is the founder of WholeWorks. For more than two decades, he has worked with a variety of corporations to improve their business performance through simulation-based, strategic leadership development. He is also teaching a course on systems thinking at the University of Vermont Grossman School of Business’ Sustainable Innovation - MBA program, which draws on the stakeholder-oriented principles of sustainability, critical for many of the strategic challenges of today’s turbulent marketplaces, providing a useful framework for creative thinking about new products, processes, and business models.