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Transformational Leadership in Action ... and In Transition

L-R: David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee onstage at SB'18 Vancouver | Images credit: Sustainable Brands

Last week, over 2,000 representatives from our global community of sustainability practitioners, brand strategists, product and service innovators, thought leaders and other change-makers converged at SB’18 Vancouver to share their latest insights on a multitude of themes pertinent to all of those committed to improving business around the world. Here, we dig into a topic at the heart of all lasting change: Transformational leadership.

All In: The future of business

What happens when two Canadians and a Brit meet to discuss what’s next following twenty years of the GlobeScan/Sustainability Leaders Report? The result is a new book: All In: The Future of Business Leadership. Authors Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan; Mark Lee, Executive Director of SustainAbility; and David Grayson, Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management came together onstage Tuesday morning as a tag-teaming trio to present their new book. Their message? In these complex and disruptive times, the most important thing we need is leadership. And what it means to be a leader has evolved.



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The book draws on examples of leadership from 50 companies over the past twenty years of the leadership study. In writing the book, they interviewed past, present and future leaders and found that there has been a huge evolution in leadership, which they broke down into three eras:

  • The Harm Reduction Era: 1997-2005, when early leaders such as Dow, BP and 3M adopted a “do no harm approach.”
  • The Strategic Integration Era: 2006-2015, during which leadership evolved into a place where companies including GE, Interface and M&S were putting together strategic plans and integrating them into the enterprise.
  • The Purpose-Driven Era: 2016-ongoing, the current era, with a new set of companies including IKEA, Natura and Tesla putting all decision-making through a purpose-driven lens. Not surprisingly, Unilever has been ranked as one of the leading companies in each era.

Pulling these insights together, they propose an “All In Leadership Framework” in which they distill the future of business leadership into five key attributes: Purpose, Plan, Culture, Collaboration and Advocacy.

“Whereas in the past, you might have been able to be a leader if you distinguished yourself in just one or two areas, to be a leader today, we believe you need to achieve on all of them,” Grayson said.

The first three foundational elements are Purpose, Plan and Culture — starting with a purpose, developing a plan and fostering a culture based on that purpose — which is where it all lives. Collaboration is then critical for getting beyond our four walls and reaching scale. Advocacy is the newest attribute of the set. 

“Saying that the five attributes are independent does not mean that they are equally mature; advocacy is probably the least mature of the set,” Lee explained. “It is not lobbying, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t in the interest of the organization, but it has to address systems change.”

The trio are not suggesting that going “all in” is a magic bullet solution that guarantees business success (is there ever one?), but they do believe this framework gives companies the best shot. In a final call to action — one that this writer in particular agrees with — Coulter reminded us that “we need to find ways to cascade and push down beyond the tip of the pyramid of companies we’ve been studying for the last 20 years.”

So, with a certain, almost comical, interchangeability of characters, the trio set forth the latest challenge for sustainability leadership. Check out the book!

Danone: Transformational leadership in action

Emmanuelle Wargon

In her plenary later that morning, Danone SVP of Corporate Affairs and Business Sustainability Integration Emmanuelle Wargon made us all a little jealous. Danone’s vision for sustainability is as big as its market share as the largest organic manufacturer in the world. Wargon introduced Danone’s 2030 goals not as a sustainability plan, but as the company plan: to earn trust, inspire purpose and authenticity, engage people and embrace consumer power, and be a leader in the global food revolution. Wargon gave us a glimpse of how Danone has been leading organizational transformation on some exciting fronts — from certifying as a B Corporation to reducing sugar and GMOs in products, to implementing key workplace policies such as parental leave for employees across its global operations.

A CFO-friendly business case for any sustainability project

Next, sustainability giant Bob Willard tackled a top-of-mind issue for many sustainability professionals — how do you get your CEO/CFO pumped about your sustainability project? We dove into the subject using green buildings as a case study during his breakout session.

Willard encouraged us to start by exploring the latest research on the cost premium between conventional products and the sustainable alternatives. In the green buildings world, prices have come down significantly. A cost premium for buildout of a LEED building in the US is now between 2-5 percent and there are cases where the cost can even be less.

In small groups, we were invited to come up with the three most compelling points for choosing a sustainable building over a conventional that could be presented to a CFO. We were a savvy crowd, readily pointing out the lower operational costs, potential for tax incentives and lower interest rates, and higher leasing and resale value of green buildings. Workplace benefits also came up — employee productivity, recruiting and retention. However, when Willard told us that productivity can be reliably monetized, and that is the biggest sell, it seemed to come as a surprise to many. In fact, productivity gains alone are more substantial than the savings from all other benefits combined.

Good research is important but not enough. So, now that we have the case, how do we sell it? Willard’s advice is to honor the process already in place in your organization and navigate it with interpersonal intelligence. The goal: to engage with management to co-create a business case that shows how your sustainability initiative will deliver value over the short and long term. In practical terms, if you are looking at an infrastructure project, it may mean getting familiar with the company’s CapEx (capital expenditure) form, typically used as a justification for financial decisions. Willard introduced an enhanced CapEx form he created that includes sustainability parameters and provides the option to weight them. His suggestion is that the CFO determines the weighting for each parameter on the form. This form is a free, open-source e-book available for download on his website.


Barbara is a community planner with a background in environmental, social and Indigenous planning and activism in Canada and internationally. She is an Associate of Reeve Consulting, where she supports clients to create, improve and share the success of their sustainable supply… [Read more about Barbara Everdene]


Mia Overall is a sustainable business consultant, founder of Overall Strategies, based in New York City. She has advised global companies around the world on their sustainability strategies, initiatives, reports, and helped them drive sustainability through supply chains,…
[Read more about Mia Overall]


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