Fears of being out of control, isolation or failure are some of the obstacles to overcome for a successful sustainability agenda
Business leaders often see challenges of the sustainabilty agenda as a form of rollercoaster. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
If you really want to know what’s going on in the minds of executives when it comes to embedding sustainability, then look no further than the business coaches they pour their hearts out to.
"I feel like I’ve been on a rollercoaster" is one of the most common complaints that executive coach John Blakey hears.
Blakey, co-author of Challenging Coaching, suggests individuals’ fears of being out of control, of failure, ridicule, isolation, being left behind, and of the sheer complexity and speed of work lives are among the biggest obstacles to driving the sustainability agenda forward.
When Blakey hears the rollercoaster comment, he now tries to add in some humour: "I say, ’That sounds exciting. If I want to go on a rollercoaster, I have to go to Alton Towers and pay for it.’"
It’s not that Blakey sees leaders’ struggles or fears as a laughing matter, it’s just that he sees a need to reframe their worldview: "They use it as a negative statement, about feeling out of control, feeling like everything is rushing by. I say it’s exactly the same feeling on a ride. The difference is the trust that you’re safe so you can enjoy it.
"They get that things need change, they get that as leaders, they need to lead the change. But they say how do I do it in a way that is consistent with the past, that doesn’t come across as radical and out there, creating uncertainty in the organisation? The main obstacle now is lack of courage."
Leadership coach Anthony Landale, whose clients include DWP, Eon, GKN and Unilever, also finds fear is getting in the way of sustainability and longer-term thinking: "People are frightened of failure and too many people are driven by fear rather than being inspired by possibility.
"What stops people from making changes is ’my manager won’t let me’, ’I’ve tried that but the culture won’t let me’. But often the greatest barriers are inside: Do I dare? I often ask people ’what if you were unstoppable?’."
It’s not just fear executives are suffering from, but also isolation. Blakey refers to one client who had been brought in to be a change agent but confessed to feeling like a fish out of water.
"Their confidence was ebbing by the day," he says. "They were surrounded by people with different values. People like this can feel very isolated and one of the valuable things coaches can bring is to remind people of their higher purpose, that it’s normal to feel like a fish out water."
Neela Bettridge, executive coach and co-founder of sustainability consultancy Article 12, whose clients include BAA, BNFL and Severn Trent, says that while sustainability is now entering the mainstream, business leaders are struggling to cope with the complexity of social and environmental challenges.
"People find complexity incredibly hard," she says. "Their stress levels are stratospheric. The sticking point is: How do I cope with complexity? How do I look at all these different areas? What do I do next? Organisations and leaders just can’t navigate the complexity."
One challenge is that the scope of sustainability keeps growing and is now merging with other key ethical issues.
One of the big themes coming up in Blakey’s coaching, which relates to sustainability, is that of remuneration and performance related pay (PRP). "Lots of leaders are in a dilemma about how to handle these issues, about how brave to be in the boardroom in challenging the status quo," he says.
"(Remuneration and PRP) is an area they think could be more sustainable, and they get it that people are getting more intolerant of this way of rewarding leaders. But they’re trying to work out how to raise it with peers and bring it to the table without being ostracised."
Blakey says one way through this maze is not to over-intellectualise by getting stuck in thinking mode and that it’s important to touch ones fears and be able to say ’I’m scared’ or ’I feel despair’.
He also suggests breaking down problems into bite-sized pieces: "I’m more into little thoughts. If I start to think too big, I get overwhelmed and start feeling powerless. If I keep bringing this down to behaviour and asking more system-centred questions, I feel I can make that change and if I do that, that’s my step. If I buy into systems thinking, that’s how people create the shift, the change.
"It’s not about getting messianic. Changing our behaviours in little ways, all add up to the big stuff. If we’re not careful, the ego will hijack and say ’let’s save the world’," he says.
Many coaches say they use mindfulness – paying attention to the present in a non-judgmental, compassionate way – to help leaders feel less threatened and better able to deal with complexity and ambiguity.
Bettridge says: "I think if people are more able to be mindful and aware of their leadership presence, they are much more able to deal with complexity. Mindfulness helps leaders get out of rabbit-in-headlight syndrome, be more emotionally detached and pick their way through complexity. One of the things is to stop and listen with all their senses so they can move from sustainability policies to doing the right thing."
Neil Scotton, former president of the UK International Coach Federation and co-founder with Alister Scott of One Leadership Project, says that faced with widespread complexity, executives more than ever "want time to think, to step back, and to be heard, which is why coaching and mentoring is so important."
Scotton and Scott say that despite the challenges, there continue to be people who stand up and say I care enough to do something about this.
Scott says: "We call them catalysts, people trying to make a difference, leading beyond self, with generosity. These people make an extraordinary difference but often don’t have traditional leadership development or support … Often what holds back the aspiring catalyst is that they haven’t yet got a track record."
They are now bringing together groups of "catalysts" so they can support each other with solutions and resources, to help counteract the isolation, lack of resources and confidence many encounter which hold them back.
Scotton says: "There are real dangers inherent in the concept of heroic leadership. It is a struggle, it is hard work but we recognise that if we have fears and concerns, chances are we’re not the only one. As coaches, we’re the canaries."
This article was published on: http://www.guardian.co.uk