By Christina Meinberg (MBA ’07)
Christina graduated from UNC Kenan-Flagler with a Sustainable Enterprise concentration. She brings over a decade of business theory and practical experience and to bear as Founder and Lead Consultant of Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Strategies.
Whether they will be CEOs, first-line supervisors, or project leaders, today’s MBAs are tomorrow’s transformative leaders. The challenges that lie ahead – from energy and food security to biodiversity loss to threats of whole systems collapse – are daunting at times, and for even the most progressive and agile companies, the changes that need to be made don’t come easily.
As a sustainable business consultant for the last 5 years, I have spent a lot of time observing CEOs and VPs of sustainability across multiple industries attempt – with varying degrees of success – to drive change within their organizations. While the intensity of the environmental challenges we face has heightened general consciousness in the public, and one could easily argue that business is now more ripe for change than ever, higher capacity leadership is essential in bridging the gap to achieve higher levels of sustainability in business and society.
So, recent MBA graduates, if you want to leave a legacy, your leadership skills may become your most valuable asset. With this in mind, in no particular order, here is my best advice on how to start your careers with the right frame of mind and set yourselves up to turn our complex challenges into platforms for change:
Know your values and model the way
When we honor our values in the workplace, we feel alive and vital and are more likely to be able to envision the future and enlist others with a common purpose.
That collaboration can create contagious commitment to shared goals – regardless of the industry we work in. If you want inspiration, look to Sir Richard Branson. Sure, he has stirred up his share of controversy, yet he has also moved from running the gasoline gorging Virgin Airlines to initiating one of the largest biofuel investments in the world, under his Virgin Fuels division. Virgin Fuels has since morphed into the Virgin Green Fund, which invests in biofuels, desalination, energy efficiency and solar companies. Walking the talk, Branson has also done humanitarian work with Nelson Mandela and invested $3 billion to fight global warming.
Point to the Destination
You will soon be thrust into a world that remains perversely intent on short-term gratification; transformational leaders must be intentional about staying focused on the longer-term horizon.
Regenerative business models are possible when leaders can see that businesses contribute to shifts in systems that root out underlying causes of non-sustainability. As Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE says, “The most important thing I’ve learned since becoming CEO is context. It’s how your company fits within the world and how you respond to it”.
Immelt has not only taken the long view and painted a systems-oriented view of his business, but has also invested accordingly. His message is clear: companies that do not innovate and adapt to match the evolving context will be left behind, while others will emerge as new leaders. This means opportunity.
Take a radical approach
The most effective leaders will tell you that failure teaches you more than anything, and therefore it’s important to stick our necks out from time-to-time for real transformation to occur. My best inspiration is from Edmund Burke: “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little”.
As mentioned in the State of Sustainability Leadership 2011 Report, “[leadership to address] climate change [is] a classic example. The terrain is dogged by financial, technical and reputational risk and uncertainty. Society’s importance of environmental sustainability views on issues like nuclear power, GMOs and biofuels can change quite quickly, and with it the perceived sustainability performance of companies. What might once have been judged to be a pro-sustainability action can quickly turn out to be the reverse – because our understanding has changed, or social attitudes have shifted or because different stakeholders do not share the same values.”
Hone your emotional intelligence
Emotional Intelligence (EI for short) includes self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy and the ability to love and be loved by others. Sound squishy for an MBA? Well, it turns out that discerning and understanding emotional information generally improves that individual’s social effectiveness, and guess what? This arises in leadership settings in the context of creating positive change.
Think about engineers developing a product to alleviate carbon emissions: even the most brilliant of the group will only achieve their aspirations and make a real dent in carbon emissions if they are able to unlock human potential. A smart meter on each home in the world will do the most good when consumers are inspired to do something with the information they glean, and ultimately change behaviors. For these reasons, having a high level of emotional intelligence – which can be used to build meaningful partnerships and a flourishing career – is equally as important as business and technical systems.
Got all that? As you well know, communicating your vision and ideas within the context of our current financial crisis will take more than the tips I can cram into this blog post. But it’s never too early to set your vision and find a mentor to hold you accountable on your path. And when the burden of creating change starts to overwhelm you, just remember – institutions don’t change the world, people do.