What we call things in business matters. When efficiency is the only stated goal, companies send the message they seek only to wring whatever profit they can from a market without consideration of how their behavior impacts the longer-term future of both the markets or, thereby, each company’s own survival.
But Christoph Lueneburger thinks it isn’t too late to rescue the word “sustainability” as an operational concept for businesses, as a stated and benchmarked goal that addresses the big questions every company faces, perhaps especially those companies leading in the resource and energy sectors.
“What would have to be true for me to keep doing the things I’m doing,” Lueneburger asked in a recent interview to discuss his new book A Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Have the Right People Choose You. “That question is at the heart of a sustainability practice” said Lueneburger, who is also founder of the sustainability practice at professional services and executive search firm Egon Zehnder.
“Corporations that are the most advanced have figured out how to embed sustainability in all their business lines,” Lueneburger said, though once that initial work is done any Chief Sustainability Officer needs a mandate to turn to much longer-term strategies for the company, examining issues with a decade-long timeline.
An issue in the energy business closely linked to emerging and operationalized sustainability practices is that of evolving hiring practices, which will be central in contending with the challenges of a rapidly aging workforce in this key economic sector. The coming “silver tsunami” – in which a significant majority of energy executives currently leading companies will retire over the coming ten to twenty years – is one of the biggest challenges for the sector, and one that Lueneburger believes should be solved in part by closely aligning recruitment strategy with the company’s sense of its own purpose, which will be reflected in its sustainability strategy.
“How willingly is a sustainability vision going to be embraced and how well are companies communicating and operationally enacting that role” are the primary issues for energy and resource companies looking at widening their sustainability practices beyond environmental issues alone. Management needs to engage “the entire culture of a company, creating a virtuous circle” in which sustainable firms attract better talent based on the values they not only speak about but live, making them more sustainable, making them better able to attract talent, and so on.
For those who think the extractive industries are far behind other sectors, Lueneburger says he has been impressed by the passion and commitment of extractive industries executives in engaging with sustainability issues. In contending with questions of sustainability and long-term planning, companies like those in extractive industries need to be “looking for people who will ask uncomfortable questions.”
Sustainability has close connections to the recent focus in the energy sector on “resiliency,” particularly when it comes to withstanding the impacts of climate change. A resilient organization builds on the asking of uncomfortable questions to allow for regular small failures through trial-and-error, in the belief that lessons learned will stave off much bigger failures over the long run.
Sustainability at energy companies is about establishing “cultures of resiliency and adaptivity,” Lueneburger says, and “living your values through work in a meaningful way.”