Good to Great: What does a ‘far, fast’ sustainable business leader look like?

9 07 2008

A dispatch.

What does a leader in business that moves us “far, fast” towards our sustainability goals look like? It’s a relevant question to our pressing need for solutions and Nicola Acutt, Ph.D. writes a “bang on” response to it.

Borrowing from a recent Al Gore speech, Accult asserts that “as people grasp the magnitude and speed of change needed to address the environmental, social and economic issues that we face, there is a growing need for leaders who take us ‘far, fast'”.

Armed with the “know-how, the capacity and the courage to drive broad-based sustainability initiatives that enhance performance and add value to the bottom line”, “far, fast” leaders are a new breed of individuals,” she states.

New? Perhaps not.

Effective sustainable business leaders may just be a variation from the “Level 5 Executive” leaders Jim Collins, author of the best-selling Good to Great (Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t…), iconicized back in 2001: individuals that build “enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”.

So, who fits into that “picture” of a “Level 5”, sustainable business leader?

Accutt brings up Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman of Interface (you may also know him as the corporate darling from The Corporation) as one:

Anderson had a ‘spear in the chest’ epiphany 14 years ago. Since then, he has turned his carpet manufacturing business into one of the country’s leading sustainable businesses. He helped Interface significantly increase profits (stock prices have increased 550 percent in the last five years) and his efforts led the carpet industry to change its practices. Today, Interface holds significant market share and is halfway to realizing its goals of using zero non-renewable resources and producing zero waste and carbon emissions by 2020.

Interestingly, if Collins were to pinpoint “Good to Great” sustainable business leaders, who would he find?

Recall that leaders who epitomised the “Good to Great” qualities like “plow horse verus show horse”, “infected with an incurable desire to produce sustained results” and “ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves” tended to create companies that outperformed the stock market (including the NASDAQ stock run-up at the end of 1999) by over fifteen times. Moreover, these leaders, more dowdy and less glamourous than expected, created companies made up of happy employees and high retention rates.

Not surprisingly, these media-shunning antidotes to the “celebrity CEO” executives are hard to find.

Here are a few “Level 5 Executives” who have showed that they can, in fact, take a triple bottom line driven company “far, fast”.

Seth Goldman, TeoEO
Goldman, “TeaEO” of Honest Tea, leads the nation’s fastest-growing organic bottled-beverage company, with projected 2007 sales of $23 million and a 58 percent share of the organic tea market. It wasn’t always that way: Goldman began in his own kitchen, with a thermos of tea, some old Snapple bottles and help from his B-school professor and partner Barry Nalebuff.

Johnathan Goodwin
Fast Company calls him the “motorhead messiah”, others call him a relatively humble “patron saint of green cars”. The point is, Johnathan Goodwin can get 100 mpg out of a Lincoln Continental while cutting emissions by 80% and doubling the horsepower while he is at it.

Gary Hirshberg

Joel Makower dubs him an idealistic and iconoclastic “CE-Yo“. Hirshberg is the organic yogurt maker of Stonyfield Farm, which he co-founded in 1983. “I think whatever your definition is of social responsibility…if the message is, ‘Look how great we are,’ then you’re missing the boat.”

For a sustainable business leader just starting out, a dedicated committee who is in charge of purchasing can be key to working transparently and effectively with a green printer, a renewable energy system and employee ride-share system (like Zip Car).

As well, a sustainability progress of report of some kind, like a Balanced Scorecard, ensures a healthy, internal feedback system.

Green Printer’s eco-calculator, with sources from the Environmental Defense Fund, helps customers like Best-Western, ReMax, Lush and Aveda go – and stay – green. Green Printer carries attractive, eco-friendly and affordable recycled paper.



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