Andrea Learned

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Sustainability Leadership: Disruptively Smart Business

A world globe and business gears as images of sustainability leadership
Why have the topics of sustainability and gender balance still not become key priorities for smart business leadership? And why does coverage of business “disruption” still seem to focus solely on the clever, the hip and the solely technological when culture demands organizational change to a whole other level?

As someone with marketing to women roots and a now deep passion for sustainable business, perhaps I take lack of attention to these less exciting topics a tad personally? It’s possible. But, no matter what is behind my irritation, sustainability and gender balance have never gotten their due, and by now, any discussion of them seems like “old news.”  Still, we best not leave it there.

First, a quick look at my own path as background for my perspective:

Women Consumers To Sustainability Leadership

Earlier in my career I focused on marketing to women, a time that culminated with the publishing of my 2004 book Don’t Think Pink.  The key point therein?  Paying attention to the women’s market has never been, in fact, a “women’s issue,” but instead has always been an incredibly smart business strategy that will only help companies sell more stuff to everyone. Of course, this truth spills over into discussions of gender balance in business leadership. As with the consumer topic, getting more women on boards, into the C-Suite, and so on, is not a “women’s initiative” but a wise business move.


About nine years ago, I shifted to my now beloved business sustainability focus and came to see even more opportunity in this particular space (happy to let others continue the efforts to reach female consumers). For operational efficiencies, stakeholder engagement and so much more, truly integrating sustainability in business decisions turns tradition on its head, but with the “good business” results everyone wants. Add in the gender lens, and there’s also this: the ways women more naturally lead can be clues to better sustainability thinking by everyone.

The combination is the one-two punch in my mind. If enough businesses would dive in on both fronts, we’d have disruption beyond what any clever tech super star could deliver.

Dots of Business Disruption

Based on just one day of observation last week, I connected a few dots of news and social media interaction around gender roles and sustainability leadership that counter any “been there, done that” already cynicism:

  1. A New York Times feature on women in Hollywood by Maureen Dowd: Reading this piece should make your teeth grind a little. To add to the grinding, you should also consider that the stories the interviewees tell are likely just a microcosm of similar experiences women in ANY business career have had. Gender balance in our daily lives is the reality (look around), so the smartest businesses should already have executive teams – and leadership pipelines – that reflect that- or be left in the disruptive dust. This quote (referring to director Leigh Janiak) in Dowd’s piece universally applies: Fixing the gender problem in Hollywood is important for women like Janiak. But it’s also important for women and girls everywhere. ‘‘We are influencing culture, which is why it’s so dangerous, I think, not to have more women making movies,’’ she said.
  2. An article in The Conversation that mentions 15 key women influencers involved in the U.N. climate talks, aka COP21: The involvement of women like Christiana Figueres and Mindy Lubber, to name two, are surely key to why  this particular COP is expected to move the climate action needle – where previous U.N. climate gatherings have not.  In my experience studying, interviewing and writing about how women lead in general, I’ve seen them more motivated by SHIFTING , i.e. working very well together in “the back room.” Worrying about SHOWING as leaders seems less a concern. (And yes, we could argue that women should make more of an effort to “show” in order for female leadership to become a social norm – but that is a topic I won’t dive into here). Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen’s take  on the difference between being driven by status/positioning or by an interest in connecting is one to which I often refer. Whether what she suggests ties to gender or not, giving it some thought could powerfully disrupt any business.
  3. A business book reading list for CEOs: I came across a Tweet “looking for more #business authors” to include in a C-Suite book club, and made sure to reply with reference to Steve Schein’s book, A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership .  His interviews with traditionally recognized global executives uncover “the hidden power of ecological worldviews.” One of the highly regarded leaders in his research offers this insight around a gender lens on climate change, in fact: “By then making the observation that sustainability could benefit from the language and culture of a matriarchal perspective, she demonstrates how an expanding circle of care can come out of the feminine.” But, back to the idea of what the C-Suite is most likely to read: this book may not be among the usual leadership tomes, but in order to truly disrupt business, it should be required reading.

Smart Business Demands Disruptive Leadership

No matter the anecdotal activity or range of social media conversations, the move to sustainability-integrated leadership and toward a fresh perspective on gender balance is happening much, much, MUCH too slowly. Given climate change and the state of our natural resources right now, what the next generation of leaders will face is almost incomprehensible.  Does the fact that your children and grandchildren will either be leading those businesses or living in a world where those leaders are making such crucial decisions provide enough reason to give this more focused attention? I say yes.

When dots connect, they connect.*

All the better if those dot connections disrupt, and we are moved to immediate action.

*For more on the thread I see that SO strongly ties women to leadership and sustainability, you may be interested in my 2011 piece for The Solutions Journal: Gender and the Sustainable Brain.   .