How to Become a More Effective Sustainability Leader


In the Inc. article, 3 Things All Great Leaders Know About Themselves, author Les McKeown argues that great leaders continually seek to know themselves better. And since we're always looking for ways to help build the capability for our clients’ in-house sustainability leaders, we were intrigued to see the three questions that McKeown says will "yield immediate (positive) results in how you lead."

Do you typically undershoot or overshoot? The single most immediate area for self-awareness improvement I see in most leaders is to gain a clear understanding of how they set goals (formally and informally). Again and again I work with leaders unaware that they are consistently playing small ball (setting goals that are way too conservative given their talents) or forever overreaching (setting goals they won't achieve, causing disappointment for themselves and exhaustion in their team)...Once you know which is your tendency, the key of course is to recalibrate your goal setting. If you're undershooting, set your goals higher, step by step. If you're consistently overshooting, lower them, little by little. Once you've hit your sweet spot and are consistently hitting near or at the goals you set, you will of course want to start edging those goals upward. Nothing wrong with that--pushing goals based on a record of consistent success is a good thing.

This is a great question not just for individual sustainability practitioners, but also for the entire sustainability team. When setting energy, waste, and water goals, are you too conservative or too aggressive? Why do you lean one way or another? What are the pros and cons of your approach? 

Is your tendency to analyze, fix, or delegate? The second area I see leaders gain the biggest advantage from understanding is in knowing how they respond when things go wrong. Broadly, there are three possible responses: analyze what just happened; "just fix it"; delegate responsibility for fixing it to someone else. (These broadly map to the Processor, Operator and Visionary styles of leadership, respectively.) If in most cases you respond with a mixture of all three possible responses (some analysis, some direction, and some delegation), then all is well. If you consistently responded by going straight to one option (analyze, fix, or delegate), then you have a challenge ahead--you're taking a knee-jerk, and hence blinkered, approach to problem solving.

How do you resolve sustainability challenges? Do you have processes in place to thoughtfully evaluate problems so that they do not recur? Have you built a talented team around you who can pick up the slack and address problems on their own? Are you able to quickly and efficiently fix problems when they crop up?

Do you usually say yes or no? This last one is easy to analyze but just as profound: Do you consistently say yes to everything that comes your way, causing you to overcommit and underdeliver? Or do you consistently say no, building a reputation as a stick in the mud and missing opportunities to innovate?

This is probably the biggest challenge we see with sustainability strategies -- either they are scattered all over the place, or focused on a single issue. The truth is that an effective sustainability program needs to be built around a handful of high-impact issues that matter to the company and its value chain. This means that sustainability leaders must 1) understand what issues matter to the company and its stakeholders, 2) be able to prioritize those issues, and 3) develop initiatives that support and integrate those issues into the day-to-day decision-making processes of the company.

How does your leadership profile stack up against these questions? Are these the right questions to ask? Are any questions missing? (One of the people who commented in the original article suggested that the question, "how do your employees communicate with you?" should be a fourth question.) Leave us a comment here, or join the conversation on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter).