Dr Andrew White, senior fellow in management practice at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, talks with senior executives who are looking at different ways of driving transformational change with sustainability leadership in his Leadership 2050 podcast.
The Paris Agreement, put into effect in 2016, set 2050 as the key date to reach net zero carbon emissions. The European Union continues to affirm its aim to be climate-neutral by that date ‘at the heart of the European Green Deal and in line with the EU’s commitment to global climate action.’
While some bodies, notably the Amazon-led Climate Pledge, have moved the dial forward 10 years, 2050 has long been seen as a harbinger of a near-doomsday scenario if nothing changes, as many news reports testify.
Sustainable Future News spoke with White on long-term change, examples of good sustainability leadership and transformational companies.
Your podcast examines innovators and sustainability leaders setting the agenda for a more equal and sustainable future. Why did you pick that specific date, and how did the podcast come into being?
What I saw was climate scientists talking about 2050 as the critical date, and that was very much in the minds of sustainability leaders. But what I wasn’t really seeing was the leadership that was needed between now and then – the movement from the science to the action. That’s what I wanted to focus on. Broadly it’s about climate, but it also touches on other issues as well, largely around people and technology, and the different agendas and those three things coming together.
Your analysis of where we are at the moment, and what’s going to come, is as much to accentuate the positive and look at the opportunities rather than the negativity. Could you sum up your ethos of what’s driving sustainability leadership and where we sit currently?
I would put leaders into, broadly, three camps. Let’s call them A, B and C. A and B are in what we call large, established companies. A are the ones who, frankly, are just waking up to it, and realising that they’re going to have to make massive changes, but are probably ducking the big questions and challenges that are in front of them. They are a decreasing number, but in my view, there are still too many of them.
There’s another group who are recognising that business is going to have to fundamentally change. And that means a fundamental review of where companies get resources from, what they do with their products at the end of life and the whole circular economy. Essentially, their footprint on the world, both through the manufacturing process, but also through the end-of-life process with products. That’s requiring huge changes. There’s a group that is really pioneering in that space, and you see that through climate disclosure data, and that’s starting to differentiate the pioneers and the laggards.
C are arguably some of the most interesting because they are unconstrained by the status quo, and they’re able to think more creatively about not just technology, but also about whole business models.
What examples are there of businesses you would put in the ‘C’ category?
One example is a company called Pavegen, a small company that generates electricity by footsteps. So to me, it’s an incredibly interesting concept when you put that technology into hospitals, thoroughfares, outdoor conditions in railway stations. So you can begin to see how human energy and air becomes, rather than being misaligned with the climate, allows that alignment.
The other, I think the most interesting, is the interview I did with David Katz, who is the CEO of Plastic Bank. Plastic Bank essentially pays money to people in low-income countries to collect plastic that’s washing up on beaches, and that plastic becomes a kind of social plastic which has more meaning and purpose when it goes back into products. Money goes into those communities and lifts people out of poverty, and sets up schools and hospitals in those poor or low-income regional coastal economies. That’s really what I’m interested in – those businesses which are really transforming and then transcending challenges like that.
Roughly speaking, is it possible for ‘A’ and ‘B’ organisations to become ‘C’s? Or does leading a ‘C’ business require a different type of entrepreneurship or sustainability leadership?
I think there’s a lot of capital going into the ‘C’s. [On the podcast] Katherine Garrett-Cox talks about that. There’s definitely a flow of investment capital into those ‘C’s – the question is, will they scale quickly enough? And which ones are the right ones?
The question for the ‘B’s is, the world is requiring them to move ever quicker, and the paradox between ‘deliver today’ and ‘transform today’ is getting ever tougher to live with. And you can see this in the case of Bernard Looney and BP. On the one hand, he’s doing incredible things with renewable energy, but he’s got this cash-making oil and gas machine, which feels very 20th century. And yet, it funds pension funds. It’s what those shareholders are looking for.
How do you ride those two horses? The internal combustion engine is going to be at its end of life soon, certainly for most practical purposes. Where does that leave a company like that? And that’s really difficult; how do you manage today’s shareholders and today’s expectations, but also drive that transformation agenda?
I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that the ‘B’s have. I think the ‘A’s will just fade away.
Has the pandemic accelerated the idea for many people not just of their place in the world, but also the fragility of the planet and the need to accelerate things?
Time will tell what the real legacy of the pandemic will be. I think one thing, which I and several others really recognised, is that organisations were able to move far quicker than they had previously thought they could.
If most organisations had wanted to put their entire workforce at home working pretty much over a weekend, let’s be generous and say, a year previous to the pandemic, we’d have been told it was impossible. There’d be pushback from people, or certain IT adjustments, certain supply chain adjustments. So we saw how quickly we could move and how quickly we could transform and change, and that I think almost awakened a muscle. The whole digital agenda can happen much, much quicker.
At the moment we’re seeing a bit of a backlash against working from home. Where should the pendulum sit? [For office workers], when should you go to the office? I go to the office for things such as really important meetings, I go for social events, where it’s important to build culture and community, where we’ve got to figure out complex things. They’re going to take three hours, we’re in a workshop. Then what’s the regular drumbeat for my team, when we’re all going to see each other? Do we all need to be going through traffic into London, spending all that money, every Monday to Friday? To me, it’s a crazy idea.
And I think from what I can see in the press, it’s old school leaders who don’t trust their people if I’m honest, and almost that their egos need the attention of people in the office, rather than recognising that work will get done. How do you measure productive work? I think that is the real question.
From a leadership perspective, what do you advocate that forward-thinking leaders should do?
The first thing is to disconnect from the status quo. If you’re going to lead and not manage, then you have to have your head focused, or your eyes on the horizon. I think with the intensity of Zoom, Teams, or emails, it’s easy to become myopic around your organisation, and around the way, we’re going to do things today. One of the things we should be doing is helping people see the longer term, disconnecting from the status quo, looking around and seeing what other businesses, and startups are doing, to understand how things could be different.
I just think that one simple step can lead to so much in terms of actually seeing the world differently, and creating a vision for what your organisation is meant to be.
What holds that back – apathy, the pace of the corporate world, or something else?
There are case studies of leaders who do this, but it requires people like sustainability leaders who are prepared to say ‘we’re going to take five days out to go on a study tool.’ ‘We are going to bring in some speakers to our boardroom who are going to fundamentally challenge the way we think about the world.’ ‘We’re going to put ourselves on courses that educate us in what’s going on in the world.’ It requires a proactive step away.
I suppose the tyranny of almost being needed in some ways, and being in days full of Zoom meetings and having all those schedules, creates this myopic pressure from what I’ve seen. You almost have to fight the current, in that sense, and fight the status quo to actually step out of it and see something that’s bigger and more long-term.
What is the one thing a guest has told you on your podcast that stood out in some way, either as good advice or a mind-blowing statement?
The thing that has surprised me is the number of people who are… [pause] I’ve got to be careful with language here, I haven’t really got my head around how to describe this, but there is a spirituality coming through which I wasn’t expecting.
What do I mean by that? Vivienne Ming talks about when you don’t take credit for something, amazing things can happen. When you put your ego aside, it’s about serving others. David Katz talked about abundance. Toto Wolff talked about meditation.
I think if I’d done this five, 10 years ago, people may have had those practices or beliefs, but there’s a spirituality. That’s not religious, but it’s also not frivolous either. It’s not like some pious denial of the ego. They recognise the [need for] a bit of an ego to be in those jobs, but there is an openness to that whole spiritual side of themselves as leaders.
People who are from that place are seeing the world completely differently. [Katz] takes two problems and said they’re not problems, they’re opportunities. [Ming is] not coming from one scientific disciplinary perspective, and she talks about how she does that. It’s about getting rid of assumptions. They begin to see the potential in the world, and they don’t see boundaries.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?