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Nine Characteristics for Leadership in Sustainability

September 25, 2017 | Phil Harrison

These thoughts derive from a presentation I delivered a few years ago at the Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design.

  • Are design firms doing enough to deliver on the promise of sustainability?
  • Is our industry losing its momentum in advancing the state of the art of sustainable design?
  • Will we ever meet the goals of the 2030 Challenge?
  • What is the role of leaders to help overcome these challenges?

In answer to the last question, I propose that there are nine characteristics of leadership necessary to achieve serious advances in environmental performance for our built environment.

Ignite change

The first thing to do is to start. Certainly, think a little before you do. But if you want something to change, you have to start it, like a spark lighting a flame. All too often leaders spend countless hours and dollars considering plans and making studies of possible actions, seeking assurances that their efforts will not be wasted. Prudence is indeed an important leadership trait. However, when confronted with something as important as sustainability, there is no time to waste. I addition, there are so many things that can be done right away that there is no compelling reason to wait and consider. You can start with easier things first, demonstrate commitment, and prove that progress is possible, thereby creating momentum that will be important for more difficult challenges in the future.

Leaders need to convey a sense of urgency. Actions will express this; talk by itself will not. Visible and tangible actions and a spirit of urgency will infect an organizations and are necessary ingredients to any real change.

Set conditions and priorities

Just as soon as they start, leaders need to communicate the importance of the change they are advocating. There can be no doubt that this change is critical to the future success of the organization, that it is an extremely high priority. In addition, they have to create an enabling environment for the change to take place in their organization. Any other organizational objectives need to adapt to support the change and certainly not conflict with it.

For example, performance metrics should be modified to account for the new sustainability objectives. Operational behaviors need to likewise adapt. Obviously, a firm that talks about sustainability but serves coffee in Styrofoam cups will not be taken seriously. This carries through to all levels and details of the organization and carries tremendous symbolic weight.

Finally, as the change initiative progresses, active management of the organizational environment will be required to make sure the growing effort progresses unimpeded by other organizational forces. In other words, leaders need to clear the way for organizational change and remain actively involved in preserving an environment for ongoing developments.

Have direct personal involvement

There is no better way to communicate a sense of urgency and importance than direct involvement. This means showing visible support, direct knowledge, and passion for the problem at hand. Why should an organization take an effort seriously if the leader does not appear to take it seriously? Leaders need to be in the front row of change, and the more they are seen to be early advocates of the change, the more quickly the change will take place.

Further, this point relates not only to the head of an organization but to the entire leadership group of the organization. If the CEO is passionate and involved but the rest of the firm’s leadership seems lackluster, then change will come very slowly if at all. Part of the leader’s job is to recruit the entire leadership team to actively support the effort. This is one of the most difficult challenges on this list because established leaders tend to have the hardest time adapting their mind sets. They have been successful the way they have always worked, so why change now? It can take some serious effort to convince these established leaders to join in the change initiative, but it is essential. In fact, a leader’s goal should be to have 100 percent active support from a leadership team. Leaders should consider significant changes to their team if they cannot achieve this goal.

Get out of the way and let go of control

While it is important for leaders to be directly involved, it is just as critical to give control to others and empower them to lead the charge. The leaders of organizations almost certainly will not be the most expert people to lead change initiatives on a daily basis. They must remain visibly involved, but they should not try to control the effort. In fact, leaders need to have a high degree of confidence in their organization’s ability to drive change. Letting go of control means being prepared to accept a relatively high degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or VUCA, as they say in the U.S. military).

Big and difficult problems need comprehensive and diverse solutions, and these types of solutions are unlikely to originate from a single person or point of view. Complex solutions come out of complex networks or systems. Leaders need to realize that the richness of an organization’s collective brain trust will most likely come up with the best solutions to the immense challenges of sustainability, and they need to allow this system to do its work.

Change your attitude of risk

Along with letting go of control, leaders need to develop new concepts of risk. Traditional risk management methods rely heavily on isolating areas of risk and exerting control in these areas to minimize them. The problem with this approach is that it tends to define things through exception or describe things that should not happen. When change is urgent, the greater risk lies in inaction, and the process of isolating and controlling risk simply causes progress to slow or even stop.

Rather than tightening a management collar in the area of change, it is far better for leaders to loosen their grip and accept VUCA in a more dynamic, changing environment. As with getting out of the way and letting go, leaders need to have a high degree of trust in their organization with regard to risk management. If they have done their work at the highest levels of the organization–set a vision, communicated priorities, established a thriving culture–then they need to trust that their organization will function at a high level and will do good work. This trust/performance relationship is self-reinforcing. The more trust and the better the results, the more likely that future organizational risks will turn out successfully.

Free up resources for investment

Eventually, firms need to be willing to spend some money to make change occur, but in this economic climate it can be especially hard to take on new financial commitments. So the key is to think of this commitment as an investment alongside other existing financial commitments. The average design firm spends 15 to 20 percent of net revenues on marketing, staff development, and technology alone. Leaders should constantly evaluate the benefit of these and other investments, considering the reallocation of resources to areas that are priorities.

New initiatives do not necessarily have to be added to existing overhead structures, causing them to be perceived as additional burdens on the organization. In fact, it is liberating to realize that you can do a lot with a modest amount of resources, especially when it comes to new efforts. The more leaders highlight the importance of an effort and build excitement around the effort, the more likely they can do more with less. It is possible to fund real tangible change with a fraction of 1 percent of revenues. Consider realizing 10 percent efficiency in marketing, staff development, and technology, and free up half the savings for new initiatives, letting the rest go to the bottom line.

Listen, engage, then share

The challenges of sustainability are immense; leaders must realize that they cannot go it alone in overcoming those challenges. One of the most compelling dynamics of the sustainability movement over the past 10 years has been the way it has functioned as a system. The progress we have made to date is a result of extensively collaborative efforts. Meanwhile, proprietary efforts have been much less successful because they have had too narrow an impact.

A new concept of intellectual property is emerging along with a new understanding of what it means to work effectively within a system. Three important characteristics are listening, engagement, and sharing. With so much going on in the sustainability movement, it is critical to listen so that you can understand what is out there. I strongly encourage leaders not only to keep up with the mainstream press but also to read blogs and follow Twitter feeds. Many leaders might say they do not have time; however, it’s not necessary to read everything or attend every conference. Listening is a state of mind and a series of actions that culminate in an overall awareness of the public conversation. Just like freeing up resources for investment, leaders should free up some of their time to listen to the public dialogue on sustainability. This is the first step toward being part of the system.

The next step is engagement. This means personally and organizationally engaging in the public dialogue. There are many venues to do this, so pick some key areas of public engagement and make them count–engage, form relationships, speak, write, blog, or tweet.

Finally, forget about the concept of proprietary knowledge, and share what you have. What good is knowledge that is not used? For knowledge to be relevant it needs to be exercised. It is critical for leaders to encourage active sharing of knowledge at all levels of their organizations, both between internal groups and to the public at large. These three actions–listening, engagement, and sharing–help make the system thrive. And they make your participation in the system relevant and noticed.

Have specific and tangible short- and long-term goals

Clearly articulated goals are important, and the leader needs to communicate these goals frequently. It is critical to understand the importance of both long- and short-term goals. Long-term goals need to be audacious and passionately communicated by a leader; short-term goals must be visibly achievable, quantifiable, and realistic. The leader needs to have the courage to be visionary while at the same time remain pragmatic and demand accountability.

Because the challenges of sustainability are significant and diverse, it is important to break down the overall problem into smaller pieces and then consider the type of leadership response for each piece. For example, the challenges for environmental toxicity are very different than they are for energy use.

Materials scientists have been very successful over the past 10 years, and we now can design buildings without any toxins, thereby creating dramatically healthier environments. Perkins+Will’s publicly available online tool helps designers understand the pragmatic details of appropriate material selection. And yet, most buildings are still designed with toxic materials because design firms have not made the simple decision to eliminate all toxic materials. In this case, the leadership proposition is clear: Leaders can create mandates for their organizations to eliminate all toxins from their designs. This is a short-term, measurable, and relatively easy action.

Meanwhile, the challenges of energy reduction are much more difficult. The objectives of the 2030 Challenge are necessary and yet extremely difficult to achieve. Those organizations and cities that have signed on to the challenge should today be building all their projects to use 60 percent less energy than the baseline. There is little question that this goal is not being met, and the goal will become more challenging in a few years. In this case, the solutions are not generally available, and so the leadership proposition needs to be different since simple mandates will not work. Here, leaders need to enlist the creative energies of their organizations to get to work earnestly on energy efficiency solutions at every level of scale and detail, and these challenges need to be appropriately stated as long-term aspirations.

Establish and articulate the purpose

The ultimate motivation for any group working on solving difficult problems is an understanding of the larger purpose of this work. This is especially true in the context of a system. A clearly stated purpose can span the multitude of efforts that altogether make up the collective effort and can have the effect of aligning these efforts to work in concert.

Leaders must see their role as defining and articulating the purpose for organizational change. Teams are motivated by purpose. We have learned from author Daniel Pink and others that understanding purpose can drive high performance much better than negative reinforcements. The millennial generation is particularly socially motivated and will respond strongly to clearly articulated purposes that contribute to social well-being.

Finally, leaders should understand that different groups may articulate their purpose in different ways but that the actions that support one purpose may support an allied purpose. In the sustainability movement, different groups focus on subsets such as solving global warming or establishing energy interdependence, but the actions to support either purpose will be very similar. Listening to the public discourse on sustainability allows leaders to understand the purposes that motivate different groups and then connect to those groups in meaningful ways. This understanding that varied purposes can motivate varied groups to align their efforts and achieve common results is one of the most powerful forces for leaders to tap into.

Phil Harrison is the CEO of Perkins+Will where he is responsible for the firm’s strategic focus and business performance. He is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.