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Opinion: Why boards, C-suite leaders must cultivate a sustainability culture

Meaningful change and progress must come from the top
Boards and executives need to shift their mindsets to focus on long-term community engagement

In the concluding episode of HBO’s True Detective: Night Country, we (spoiler alert) saw how an Indigenous community in Alaska was forced to take extreme measures to protect their environment and people from the corporate system. The audience witnessed financial, scientific, police and local government leaders exploiting the environment, societal health and safety, and mental health for short-term profit.

Days after watching, the show came back to mind during a gathering I attended in Vancouver hosted by BOMA BC, an association dedicated to the commercial real estate industry. At this in-person event titled “Harmonizing Business Goals – Indigenous Reconciliation and ESG Reporting,” guest speaker Ken Letander of consulting firm Strat First Inc. urged the audience to adapt from a traditional exploitative or potentially perceived “bad actor” mindset to a customer-centric service culture focusing on relationship-first informed development.

Listening in as a stakeholder-first executive coach, I felt the burden for DEI, compliance, project managers and health and safety leaders in all organizations as they try to influence and tackle necessary culture shifts to reach environmental and societal governance goals.

They’re doing so while organizations’ boards and C-suites have yet to culturally accept the way forward as the new norm.

The need to evolve

According to Letander, boards have done well to update their expectations for organizations to “do better to reduce poverty, ensure equity and to ensure supply chains have sustainability components built into them.” In my experience with corporations since the 90s, however, it is often hard for leaders to adapt to higher and urgent expectations and needs for people and the planet, or keep up with the pace of change around them. (For guidance, I would suggest reading the new book Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World by Alison Taylor for more on this subject.)

Corporations are often criticized for treating environmental, societal and governance (ESG) requirements as a box-checking exercise with the mindset of gaming or skirting accountability, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term community well-being.

As portrayed in the fictional narrative from True Detective: Night Country, the prioritization of corporate interests resulting in environmental and community harm underscores the necessity for emotionally intelligent approaches to achieve long-term, sustainable goals.

The shift to long-term returns on investment, and emphasis on societal, generational and environmental outcomes over short-term profits, is the model ESG is truly searching for.

One B.C.-based organization reverse-engineering the traditional construction industry model is NUQO, an indigenous company focused on affordable housing and child care for indigenous communities. NUQO is led by my client CEO Rory Richards, who says that “our foundational way of working is to focus on the community and stakeholder needs before profit. Being a stakeholder first means carefully listening to the community first and building what they need.”

Short-term goals fail communities

At the BOMA BC event, Letander talked about a new approach to integration with communities, instead of viewing them as obstacles. He highlighted a high level of scepticism among some Indigenous people when corporations embark on a perceived short-term corporate goal. Letander underscored the need for an emotionally intelligent approach, which takes “time, listening and understanding,” he said.

It can take time for a community to see that a corporation isn’t a transactional incomer. In the HBO show, data manipulated by a mining company meant urgent health and safety calls and protests by the community were ignored. Offscreen, Letander talked about how corporations can skew data to put forth a picture of a clean and ethical organization during ESG reporting. Communities seek incomers with integrity.

Letander invited business leaders to shake off old paternalistic mindsets by adapting to and creating authentic goals in partnership with community—goals that do no harm, and come with long-term commitment.

Women in leadership

The solution is complicated, yet possible with a shift in dynamics.

A participant at the BOMA event (who chose to remain anonymous) told me: “Women are better listeners in a world of alpha men in construction. A woman’s presence changes the tone. I typically have my female business partner with me to balance the collective male ego and I see collaboration and results increase fivefold. What takes five meetings with men is reduced to one meeting when a woman can bring her insights, resolution and a pragmatic stakeholder-first way forward.”

I asked this participant what it is specifically that women contribute and he didn’t hesitate with his response. “Women bring added professionalism and we need more women in leadership roles to create balance.”

Richards’ construction company is an example of this. NUQO is a certified Aboriginal business, and a female-first company where 90 per cent of her employees are women.

According to ConstructConnect Canada, the statistics on women in the workforce are improving.

“Finding women in construction is like looking for needles in a haystack. Women comprise under three per cent of the construction sector. The percentage of women in leadership positions is a small fraction of that three per cent. It is still extremely rare to see women in senior leadership roles in construction,” Richards told me.

When Richards approached a professional construction recruiter to find her general manager, “He turned the search down flat saying in a matter-of-fact way that he would never be able to find a man in construction leadership that would report to a woman.”

 “In contrast, another recruiter spent weeks trying to find female project managers. You can find female project coordinators, but very few female project managers. Women are not advancing in construction at the same pace as their male counterparts and we need to ask ourselves why that is,” she added.

Letander talks about “sharing the power,” whether it’s mentoring new people for succession planning, or enabling other parties and voices to be heard and understood. For leaders in positions of authority or perceived influence and power, understanding how they take up the room in minority spaces takes empathy and time to understand and master.

Hiring for diversity was met with backlash when it was pursued as a box-checking exercise during the pandemic. The fact remains that having a diverse workforce enables mature and sustainable solutions. Creating equitable voices in construction could positively impact long-term outcomes for both the community and the environment.

A new approach

We can’t avoid these dynamics and issues anymore. We need to evolve our mindsets with diverse thinking to solve era-defining problems together for the highest good of communities.

While some strategists may advocate for a wrecking-ball approach to aggressively dismantle old systems, scientists tell us that approach unintentionally puts people into fight, flight or protection mode.

For leaders who hold disproportionate power, there are many ways to understand the complex human and community ecosystem through an active, human-centred way.

Looking ahead, the question C-suite leaders and boards should ask is not, “What’s the ROI?”

The question is: “What is holding you back from understanding the human and community ecosystem better so you can do business in their community?”

Reputation and business development in the ESG landscape depends on being a genuine strategic champion and investor for the long haul—not being a short-term, transactional ally.

So, what initiative might you start today?

Caroline Stokes is a certified executive stakeholder and business sustainability coach and author of Elephants Before Unicorns (Entrepreneur Press), co-author of a chapter for Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Navigating the Toxic Workplace and author of a chapter in Coach Me! Your Personal Board of Directors. Leadership Advice From The World’s Best Coaches (Wiley).