The time for big picture, sustainable thinking is now

Adrienne Miller courtesy of ISCA

Words by ISCA general manager, New Zealand, Adrienne Miller.

Sustainable thinking needs to be recognised as the multidisciplinary leadership capability of our time, but there is a way to go on this.

There are many parallels with health and safety, and it is worth revisiting that journey for the lessons it offers.

Health and safety were initially seen as a business risk to be managed by specialist individuals and as an adjunct to Business As Usual (BAU).

The approach was one of systems and processes, measurement, and compliance, all imposed on an organisation from the top down. Staff that transgressed a workplace’s systems and rules were liable to punishment and reprimands.

Gradually over time the tendency to attribute incidents to personal choices, or freak Swiss cheese factual alignments, was gradually replaced by long hard questions about the organisational culture that had driven the behaviour in the first instance.

With Safety II we focussed on what good practice (the incident free instances) could teach us, instead of looking in the rear vision mirror of incident forensics and lag indicators.

We started to understand that safety was less about compliance and much more about culturally embedded values. Organisations moved to overarching golden rules aligned with values that also enabled decisions in ‘upset conditions’ – scenarios not envisaged by the rule book.

For a long time, the poor cousin of safety, occupational health, and its side kick wellbeing, also started to be better understood. In some cases, even valued for the benefits delivered to recruitment and retention.

Over time, we also realised it was not the job of just one person(s) (or team) to help drive safety for the entire organisation, but instead was the responsibility of all leaders, wherever they sat in the organisation.

The ability to authentically lead in this space became a sought-after leadership competency. Such is the parallel journey being travelled with sustainability.

Sustainability still seems to be run in many organisations as a separate stream divorced from the core business. With activity driven by legal compliance and a desire to avert damaging bad news stories, rather than for driving good. Even in more sophisticated organisations, the language sustainability practitioners speak is still foreign to many business leaders.

Sustainability also remains linked in too many minds to the environment, when
it is actually more about the overarching viability, tenability, and palatability of
all activity over time, with much to learn from indigenous and first nation’s peoples around what is valued and the relevant horizons.
Done well, sustainability’s tentacles can and should permeate all parts of an organisation and its supply chain.

There is still risk too of the sustainability agenda being subverted to short term economic imperatives (with long term benefits that could have been realised, being discounted).
Similarly, at a systems and economic level, organisations have been rewarded for that short term narrow focus, without having to account for the cost to society of externalities.

But increasingly there is a demand for change from regulators, investors, and other stakeholders, (including current and future staff). They know a good thing when they see it and will reward it with their feet and wallets. This means sustainability is not just a risk, but an opportunity to be seized.

Sustainability needs, like health and safety, to become more widely understood and deployed, and to become a coveted leadership competency for leaders at all levels of an organisation.

Utilising the wider, bigger picture, connected-up thinking of sustainability is essential as we grapple with the multiple waves of ‘upset conditions’ we are facing right now. Upset conditions like COVID-19 and climate change and the knock-on effects and inequalities they cause in society, and across the natural and built environment.

But for this to happen, just like we did with safety, we need to take a long hard look at what we’re doing culturally that is causing the problems and how we might do things better.

A really good start would be building our sustainability bench strength.

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