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5 Necessary Steps to Insignificance (and how shared leadership can save you)

February 22, 2018

 "Patagonia dissolves its sustainability department..." I recall reading these words in 2014 and was shocked.  The Triple Pundit article explained how this industry leader was getting rid of its sustainability office.  But it wasn't giving up, it was digging in.  Penn State is on a similar path.  A superb discussion yesterday between the Sustainability Institute and the Smeal College of Business, reminded me of Patagonia's evolution. It got me thinking:


"What is the optimum relationship between a central sustainability office or any central office and a business unit or department?"


The Five Necessary Steps to Insignificance

The article presents a common corporate sustainability path, which I will refer to as the "Five Necessary Steps to Insignificance."  They are necessary just like elementary school and learning to dribble are necessary first steps for ultimate success.  And they lead to insignificance, which is another way of saying they are only foundational and, relative to one's potential, are insignificant.  An employee that only reads at the elementary level would be insignificant just like a basketball player who only knows how to dribble (but knows nothing of shooting, passing, or defensive strategy). 


From the article, the five steps experienced by most companies are:

  1. The CEO for one reason or other decides that the company needs to get involved with sustainability. To manage this,

  2. The CEO hires someone to be in charge of sorting out sustainably for the whole company

  3. This lonely person has limited power and quickly becomes impotent to the cause

  4. Yet, the company’s sustainability awareness still grows with the times and the company warms to reducing costs and improving brand with better sustainability practice

  5. A sustainability department is born

And, the article continues, many companies stop there.  Either through lack of will or skill, they flatline.