Guest Post: Sustainability Leadership – Book Summary

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I am delighted to share with you a review of the book Sustainability Leadership, A Swedish Approach to Transforming your Company, your Industry and the World by Henrik Henriksson and Elaine Weidman Grunewald, kindly provided by Adi Gaskell – thanks for sharing Adi! The book draws together insights from an event hosted by Norrsken on 22 October 2020 during which Scania CEO Henrik Henriksson and other business leaders talked about how companies can achieve exponential sustainability impact.

Nordic Lessons In Sustainability Leadership

by Adi Gaskell, posted 18th January 2021

After Swedish 17-year-old Greta Thunberg sparked a global youth movement in 2018 that grew into the largest climate change protest the world has ever seen, it is perhaps no surprise that the Nordic country is at the forefront of sustainability leadership.  The country has obtained all manner of laurels in recent years, including 1st place in the Green Economy Coalition launched at the World Economic Forum in 2020; 1st place in the Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index (for the 4th successive year); the Most Reputable Country in the world in 2018; 1st among OECD countries in the 2019 Sustainable Development Index in terms of its success in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals; and also top of the tree in RobeccoSAM’s Country Sustainability Rankings in both 2018 and 2019.

Given this impressive honor roll, it’s perhaps no surprise that the country also comes very high in the Good Country Index, the Rule of Law Index, and the Human Development Index, all of which feature sustainability metrics in their calculations.  It also suggests there is much to be learned from the Swedish approach to sustainability.

That’s certainly the hope of Henrik Henriksson, CEO of Scania, and Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, long-term sustainability veteran and founder of the AI Sustainability Center, who explain the Swedish approach to sustainability leadership in their recent book Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming your Company, your Industry and the World.

Sustainability leadership

The book highlights how Swedish organisations have come to lead the way in terms of corporate sustainability, and includes findings and analysis from dozens of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and policymakers.  Their sustainability leadership model consists of three core elements:

  • The foundation – where your purpose is discovered, your footprint is understood, and trust built throughout the organisation.
  • The core – where sustainability is embedded into the core of your organisation and then made real by linking it to sales and customer value creation.
  • The leap – where a societal and planetary lens is adopted to take things to another level via unconventional partnerships that amplify your efforts.

“The entire model is a journey towards sustainable exponential impact, which is the destination,” the authors explain.  “Your ambition as a leader will be fundamental to guide the necessary actions to steer your company to sustainability leadership and market success.”

The Foundation

The first part of establishing your foundation as a sustainable leader is to have a very clear idea of your purpose as an individual and as an organisation.  This is the “north star” that guides everything else.  For many years this has been seen as fluffy and inconsequential, but not only do younger workers today demand organisations with a clear purpose, but those same organisations have been shown to outperform peers who lack such direction.

By working with stakeholders, this purpose can then manifest itself in a series of commitments and ambitions that underline that you’re not just talking the talk but are determined to deliver on your purpose.  This delivery is then crucial in underpinning the trust that stakeholders have that you are serious about sustainability.

The Core

A baseline goal for any sustainability initiative is for it to become a part of the DNA of an organisation.  This includes incorporating sustainability in the strategy, in the business model, and in the value proposition.  As with most change initiatives, there are areas that can deliver the best bang for the buck, and the authors suggest these should be focused on first to build momentum and support for sustainability internally.

It’s also important to ensure that these efforts are oriented in such a way that they drive sales.  Just as younger employees want their employer to have sustainable leadership, so increasingly do customers.  We spoke in last month’s newsletter about the growth in sustainable investing, and this is a perfect illustration of the growing value being placed on sustainability by society.

The Leap

The final step then underpins the ambition the organisation and its leaders have for their sustainability initiatives.  The authors highlight that the sky really can be the limit and it is perfectly feasible to aim for the sky and change the world with efforts that have an exponential impact.

The authors urge leaders to achieve this via a societal ecosystem approach, which can both help organisations to better understand how they fit into the sustainable development goals and how they can work to make a positive impact towards the achievement of those goals.

The book contains lots of examples that bring the strategies and operational tactics to life.  As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a clear desire to rebuild the world in a better way than that which preceded the pandemic.  Sustainability is likely to play a crucial role in that rebuilding, and as the book highlights, we could all learn some valuable lessons from our Nordic cousins in that regard.

You may also enjoy watching this video from the event. 

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