Have you ever wondered if it’s really possible for just one person to make noticeable impact towards greening a business? Renowned author and speaker, Carol Sanford, argues a resounding ‘YES!’ Before Carol takes the stage at GoGreen Portland on October 11, learn the definition of a truly responsible business and how you, as an individual, can drive change from within — even if the word “sustainability” isn’t in your title.
GoGreen Conference: Before we dive into the concept of a responsible human — the topic of your solutions lab at GoGreen Portland — let’s back up a bit. Help us understand the definition of a responsible business.
Carol Sanford: A lot of us have intentions to try and improve how it is that businesses engage with the world — so they not only do not do harm, but actually create a better world. Most of the time, we try to do this using either advocacy or influence and sometimes all the way up to pressure of some kind. But we’re missing a key ingredient there, which is what I call capability.
We notice that often when we’re seeking change in a person, we have a conversation with them that ends up more like a debate. And even after we’ve given them evidence of something, nothing changes. My premise, and the premise of the responsible business, is that if we don’t build certain kinds of capability, people cannot see why they’re believing what they’re believing and they can’t develop a belief in a change process.
If you really want to help people change and help them change in a way that is much more responsible (which is a word I like a lot), you have to build a both inner and outer capabilities that are much more systemic.
One of these capabilities is the ability to see the world in terms of related, dynamic systems, not as seeings things as “doings.” When we see the world as things, what we do is break it up into pieces, and we end up working on it in pieces. Every time we work on a piece, we usually cause a bad side effect for something else. For example, we decide we’re going restore a watershed, but what we do is restore that watershed in a way that doesn’t end up creating health and vitality for all the living species, like elk or wolves, that are connected to the water. We create a solution based on what we know is best for water, but we don’t look at the whole system. I differentiate that from what MIT calls systems thinking, which is built off the study of machines — it’s a fibernetic view of systems that doesn’t necessarily factor in the living factor of natural systems.
The responsible business is based on is learning to see all of those aspects as related and necessary to the success of the whole. I call out five stakeholders as a making up a system. I’d say it starts in business with a consumer. After that, you connect what I call the co-creators to that node. Co-creators are what we used to call suppliers and employees, but empowering them with a creative and important role in the process. Then you can ask the question: How does Earth become healthier, and how do communities become healthier through our actions? We often forget the Earth and our communities as stakeholders, even though most of our products depend on drawing material resources from the planet and our communities are impacted in almost every decision we make. As a result of integrating all the above aspects appropriately, we insure that the investors get a return.
So that’s a system of thinking and what underlies the responsible business. I’m now taking that into an arena where individuals can look at it how they can live out those same kind of aspects and make impact in their role, whatever it might be.
GG: We like to talk about the spirit of individualism and self-determination in this country. As a co-creator, how do we as individuals fit into that bigger picture — that whole system?
CS: One of the uniquenesses of the United States of America and the nature of its founding is that we are very much rugged individuals. The upside is that it allows us to take on a strong sense of personal agency. The shadow side of that is that it can have us become self-serving and even go so far as greed. The reason I’m working on this idea of the responsible human is to take that cultural characteristic, which I greatly value and believe is something the US can offer to the rest of the world, and build a process for driving it to fruition.
Do we, as human beings, have a unique role in the world? I believe we do. I believe that when we understand and see ourselves as an integral part of a living system — rather than above it or separate from its effects and consequences — we have the chance to discover solutions that support all facets of life and enterprise. I have been committed to that idea for almost four decades of my life, building capability into companies and individuals as they work together in teams, groups towards individual and commons goals.
What I’m going to bring in to this conversation at GoGreen Portland are what I’m calling the six core aspects of building the responsible human so that organizations, businesses, societies, and people have the ability to live out this rugged individualism, this drive, this sense of personal agency; self-actualizing, in a context that serves the whole.
GG: What are these six core aspect to the approach you’re advocating?
CS: The subtitle is “Change the world without changing jobs”, right? So we are going to focus on a framework that gets people started on a path to making a difference by developing their own capability. No matter where you are, you can bring about the kind of improvements and evolution in your workplace and society that will benefit us all. To that end, I’m introducing six aspects, three of which are sort of an outer nature and three of which are an inner nature. Before you can focus them on your place of work, you have to think about how to build them in yourself. How do you ensure you yourself are growing in a way that you can be the change agent you want to be. And as you work on yourself, how do you bring those kind of capabilities into the organization via influence? So let me list what those six core aspects are and note that we’ll dive deeper into how each of these applies to the idea of a responsible human during the lab.
- Ability to see the world and your environment (work or otherwise) from a dynamic systems perspective and to understand nodal thinking.
- Engage in external considering. This is the premise that it’s not all about you and that your actions have impact on other aspects of the systems you exist in.
- Transfer your worldview from a fixed performance perspective to a dynamic, developmental perspective.
- See each person as unique and as possessing distinct capabilities and talents to contribute to the vitality of a system.
- Ability to engage the “internal locus of control.” Take accountability for your actions and help hold others accountable as well.
- Move beyond self-actualization into systems actualization. How do you fit into the whole dynamic?
GG: How do we effect the success of our organizations with these tools? If you’re in a business with 10 people, you can really see the effects of your work. But how much difference can one person really take in a huge corporation like Google that has tens of thousands of employees?
CS: All of us know a handful of people that , because of how they are, are influencing everyone’s thinking. I ask this question of people all the time: Think of five people that — because of how they behave and how they interact — command attention and respect, have a sense of integrity and are valued for what they’re bringing to the table. A lot of the characteristics I just talked about here have to do with how we engage even when it’s a one-on-one or small group situation. We have to remember that our behavior changes the dynamics of the group. We forget how much that if we behave differently, other people do too. People are attracted to others who exhibit these characteristics of leadership. We admire, respect and get inspired by people who think about others. People who can see the right place to intervene, the right node to affect. The people who see you as changeable, growable and not stuck in life — and give you that respect. Who see you as unique and distinctive. Who see you as holding yourself accountable — no lying, no excuses, no victimhood — and who see you as trying to help improve the life of not only yourself but also for everyone else.
If you’re practicing and building your capability in all of these areas, it has a huge influence on the rest of the system — I don’t care what office you sit in. And the more you’re able to do this over time, the more effect you have. It has nothing to do with the size of an organization. Let me tell you about one guy who ran a detergent tower in Colgate-Palmolive in South Africa, who’d had only the equivalent of a fourth-grade education. Isaac was his name. Everyone would have said that Isaac, sitting on that detergent tower with no education could have done very little, but Isaac decided because his own children were going to be able to come into this new republic of South Africa, he had to figure out a way to bring some changes. He started talking about it to other people. What he wanted was to improve the health of the children in Selletto, the township that he lived in. He started asking why it was that they made toothpaste and mouthwash, but couldn’t create a way to improve health in the community?
Well Issac kept working on himself and building this dialogue with others out of this vision of what he thought was possible and he eventually was able to get the corporation (it took him about 6 months) and a group of dentists to help educate the children. He started with a set of women who had small businesses and got them set up to sell bolt-and-lock cases of these products to help improve children’s health. He even built the program with dentists in order to measure and track the health benefits, and then he brought in the economic development commission. That was one guy in a factory! So, it’s not about large or small. It’s about the ability to understand that you have to change how you approach change. These six things give you a way to think about the challenge of: How do I move me so that I can move the world?
GG: How do these ideas apply to sustainability efforts?
CS: Sustainability efforts are often very short-sided and limited in terms of their systemic effects. We end up with lists of best practices to work on, things to count, that don’t necessarily improve the health and the wholeness of the planet. No one is ever encouraged to ask about that and expand their view. That’s something we need to work on.
Let me back up to even what people’s current job is. For the most part, when people are working in a sustainability role, what they are empowered to do is bring the kind of conversations that are normally not brought forward, to the front of the agenda. When we did Seventh Generation’s second sustainability report, we said we were no longer going to count just the numbers that reduced carbon or reduced the company’s footprint. Instead we were going to bring forward the story of how it was that those actions set to make a difference to a larger system. So they looked at the air basin which surrounded Burlington, Vermont, and they started to have the conversation about the quality of the air and the quality of life of people who lived there. When you think about thing like the asthmatics of the children who lived in a community it brings a massive idea like global climate change into better focus.
This is what the dynamic developmental view is all about. People had come to see the pollution in their area as something that they couldn’t handle. So instead of Seventh Generation just issuing a report, they engaged the community in a narrative. Gregor Barnam (their Director of Corporate Consciousness at the time) decided that if he was really going to bring about change in how people talk about sustainability, he had to make it personal. So he created an idea of showing people and businesses how they can effect their community by their choices and by how they operate — and that they can really can influence their own health and that of the community.
It was really just three people who created this initiative. They had no titles — they had jobs, I think one of them was a customer service-related person. Gregor ended up working with the title of Director of Corporate Consciousness, but he was one person, he didn’t have a staff or anything. Still, this became a movement across the entire state of Vermont. Now Vermont’s a little unique, but they carried that out and took it into Arkansas. I was with their founder, Jeffrey Hollender, when he went to Wal-Mart and introduced this idea to them about how it is you really ought to be engaging communities around the idea of sustainability, not just doing reports. It was something that really took hold.
GG: For the people attending, what do you hope to accomplish in this session and what do you hope people leave the session armed with?
CS: There are two things I hope they come away with. One is a belief that there are things they can change about how they’re engaging even in small, day-to-day operations — And that these things can have a ripple effect beyond their own thinking and their own wishes and dreams. Many time it feels like you attend a conferences to get inspired from other people, but then you have to go back and work where nobody else cares about what you believe is important — or cares less about it at the very least. I want attendees of this session to go home with the belief that they can be influential in the areas they are passionate about and empowered to take steps to get there.
The second thing is that we’re going to spend time developing a plan on how they can first take action on building capability in themselves (because all of this has to do with working on ourselves first) and then how they could influence change on something they care about by acting differently in their own right. We’re going to work in small groups, so that they’re not only getting ideas from me from their peers. We’re going to share and reflect on them. I feel like if they walk away with a sense of being a person that can have an effect by changing a few things and if they have one place where they’re gonna take action, that’d will be well worth the time.
Carol Sanford is a renowned author, speaker and business consultant. She will be leading the Responsible Human: Change the World Without Changing Your Job Solutions Lab at GoGreen Portland, Thursday, October 11. You can join Carol for this empowering session and a full day of trainings and solutions-based learning by registering at portland.gogreenconference.net/registration.