Seven habits of successful green business leaders

Oct 29 2010 by Gareth Kane Print This Article

A recent trend in leading businesses is the migration of 'green' or 'sustainability' out of its green management silo and into the boardroom. That's because the scale of the sustainability challenge is immense - and the CEOs of companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Tesco, Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer and Diageo all know that to succeed will take real leadership muscle.

Unfortunately, according to a recent survey by Business In The Community, senior managers and board level executives do not believe they have the skills and knowledge required to meet the challenge. This is the topic of my next book, The Green Executive, but it doesn't hit the shelves until next May, so here's a quick primer on the habits the modern green business leader must learn.

1. Demonstrate commitment

Making a commitment is one thing, demonstrating it is quite another. People will judge you on your actions rather than your words. I have heard repeated anecdotes of Managing Directors announcing a new low carbon direction for the business, then showing up the next day in a brand new gas guzzling company car. They then wonder why their staff get cynical.

The owners of Google famously drive modest and efficient Prius hybrids despite their immense wealth - a clear demonstration of their commitment to tackling climate change. They are also funding a range of low carbon R&D projects, covering both the carbon footprint of the digital world and wider issues like renewable energy and electric vehicles.

2. Stay informed

You don't need to be an expert on, say, biomagnification of persistant organic pollutants or fully understand the significance of the albedo effect on climate change to run a green business, but you should have a reasonable grasp of the basics. People still mix up climate change and the hole in the ozone layer and they immediately lose credibility.

So it is worth putting together some bedtime reading which will give you a good view of sustainability issues and solutions and allow you to put your efforts in context. Keeping up to date with new thinking in corporate sustainability is also valuable. There are plenty of print and on-line sources of information, including my own blog.

3. Learn by doing and be resilient

"Paralysis by analysis" is a fatal disease in sustainability programmes. The field is so huge and complex that you can spend forever calculating life cycle assessments, carbon footprints, MAC curves and all the rest. These tools have their place, but you will achieve much more by setting a broad direction of travel and getting stuck in.

It ain't easy being green, as Kermit the Frog once lamented, and the corollary of the learn by doing approach is that you're probably going to make a lot of mistakes. There are other times where your commitment to sustainability will be tested by short term commercial pressures. Persistence and resilience are essential to avoid getting bogged down.

4. Make it everybody's responsibility

There is a great parallel between where sustainability is now and where quality was a few decades ago – a bolt on system of checks and balances. Then the Total Quality Management movement came along and made quality everybody's responsibility, leading to big improvements in the quality of consumer goods.

Similarly, to make step changes in sustainability, you need to get 'green' out of the environmental manager's office and permeate it through the company from boardroom to the shopfloor. So delegate, but don't derogate, responsibility.

5. Don't forget you are running a business

Some people get the green bug and expect it to be some kind of business panacea, but it isn't. A green bankrupt company won't help anyone. You must understand the business case for going green as it applies to your business. Then you must find and apply the solutions that are good for the planet and good for your business.

For example green niche products will never go mainstream if they compromise on performance or price in the name of the environment. If you want to sell to the mass market, you need to develop products which deliver on performance, price AND planet.

6. Be prepared to wield the axe

There are two parts to going green: starting doing green stuff and stopping doing ungreen stuff. The first is relatively easy, but the second can take real guts.

It was notable that when car manufacturer GM came back from bankruptcy in 2009 with a promise to go green, they not only resurrected their moribund electric car programme, they also sold off the gas-guzzling Hummer brand.

The best green companies relish killing off product lines which conflict with their values – flooring giant Interface has deleted over 30 product lines which couldn't be manufactured without toxic chemicals.

7. Make it fun

A common mistake is to adopt a worthy, hair shirt, hand-wringing, apologetic tone. I have a particular loathing for the clichéd image of a hand cupping a sapling that many organisations use to represent their "responsibility" to the planet. Who is that going to appeal to?

If you want to be engaging and bring people with you, then make it fun, funky and fresh - "more stilettos than sandals" as Ashley Lodge of Harper Collins memorably put it. Be bold, be proud and make it sound compelling.


About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.