Sustainability: The Strategies to Achieve, the Leadership That
Makes It Happen
Sustainability – you often hear the “buzz” word being tossed
around in “eco-friendly” circles, by your local and national
government agencies, in corporate jargon, and through the media.
It’s also a term that surfaces frequently on the business front,
particularly in an economic climate that’s experiencing stormy
weather. While today’s savvy CEOs and managers sense the smartness
behind the concept, many such leaders are desperate to understand,
implement and attain “sustainability” — before it’s too late.
So what exactly does sustainability mean? In business, it’s
the ability of a company to develop and implement winning strategies
that lead to long-term success. And here’s the reality check that
great leaders get: When it comes to achieving sustainability,
there’s no silver bullet or magic pill. You can’t just suddenly make
a company more sustainable, and therefore more profitable and secure
on a permanent basis. It takes real work, in terms of being open for
necessary change, committing to a plan, and the ability for the CEO
or manager to lead by example.
Business sustainability starts with knowing when to stay the
course with proven strategies or when it is time for change. Strong,
effective leaders leverage proven strategies that move their
companies forward. However, when a company’s Vital Factors — the
unique set of critical elements that can either hold a company back
or propel it to success — are suffering, change is needed to restore
the business to original or, ideally, better-than-ever health.
It’s easy to find examples of businesses that, in order to
achieve sustainability, needed to change — but didn’t. Remember the
residential construction companies whose executives foresaw the
bursting of the housing bubble? Why did some of these companies fail
when they had the resources, energy and desire to survive the
downturn? Because they lost focus of execution and implementation of
their ideas, or they moved too slowly. In short, they dropped the
proverbial ball and fumbled. It is not easy to create long-term
sustainability, but the consequence of failure is always painful.
The residential construction market example comes as no
surprise, however, considering that failure to execute strategies
consistently is the number-one reason why many businesses don’t
achieve long-term sustainability in profits and growth. And in fact,
this happens in the first and most challenging of four phases that a
company must go through to reach sustainability. Leaders who succeed
in all four phases will find their organization in a position of
renewed vitality and productivity.
This first phase, known as the “How Phase” is all about the
mechanics and is typically very difficult because it often entails
change in areas including management, policies, procedures,
ideology, technical competencies, staffing, etc. Early in this
phase, internal resistance to change is at the highest point because
employees are focused on how to do the new activity without clearly
seeing the benefits. To fully implement this phase of the process,
business leaders must strongly sponsor change by communicating and
reinforcing the desired new methodologies and workforce behaviors.
Examples include: updating the frequency and quality of face-to-face
meetings within the company, as well as setting goals and measuring
results against the new directions, actions or behaviors.
Once a company’s employees demonstrate proper, regular
execution of strategy, and begin to see and experience its benefits,
a very natural, powerful motivation develops. Called the “Why
Phase,” this second step enlightens a company’s team as to why the
strategy was implemented in the first place. It’s that “Ah-ha!”
moment – when whatever your staff has been striving for and why
they’ve been doing it suddenly makes great sense because initial
positive results occur. Employees see their Vital Factors, the
specific indicators of the company’s health, improve and blossom.
The fruit of their labor is right before their eyes — and it’s so
rewarding that it easily compels them to stay the course … or do
The third phase of implementation, called the “Who Phase,”
evolves as the strategy itself becomes internalized and ingrained in
the workplace culture, a direct consequence of successfully
integrating the strategy and reaping consistent results. Employees
on the inside execute the strategy, and those on the outside of the
company start to recognize it, as well as its value. The strategy
simply becomes part of the company’s DNA, and employees emotionally
and intellectually accept the new way of doing business. To
optimize results, company leadership should continue to focus on
employee accountability and recognition directly tied to the
Once a strategy becomes part of your company’s DNA, you can
fully achieve sustainability through the fourth phase of
implementation called the “External Phase.” In this phase,
companies have a perfect opportunity to apply their strategy
externally to their business partners. Fore example, if you’ve
effectively integrated a top-notch performance management system,
you could leverage the system externally to better manage your
vendors/suppliers. If the strategy streamlined operations and
eliminated waste, sharing these new processes with your
vendors/suppliers could ultimately result in better efficiencies and
The golden thread that ties these four phases together is
leadership. The responsibility of leadership is to sponsor the new
strategy through consistently communicating the need for change,
personally modeling the new desired behaviors, and reinforcing the
change through accountability and recognition. In terms of managing
change, all three behaviors are important, but they are not equal.
The personal behavior you model carries more weight than what you
communicate. However, what you reinforce is the most powerful
leadership tactic of all.
When it comes to sustainable businesses, great leadership plays a
crucial role and is about unyielding commitment to proven business
practices. Execution of the fundamentals — in both the easiest and
toughest of times — is what moves your team players through each of
the four phases. Steadfast dedication to this process ultimately
leads to a sustainable, winning strategy.
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