Environmental Leadership

Last week I introduced the journey that I’m on, interviewing thought-leaders in the field of sustainability about the challenges and opportunities they see as they work to create connected cities that work, which also happens to be the theme of the upcoming MGBCE conference. This series highlights some of the emerging themes and unique perspectives from these informal conversations and interviews.

You can join the conversation by contacting me directly at stacy.sinclair@me.com or leaving your thoughts here.

Today’s Snapshot: It takes gurus, managers and brokers

In this project of listening, I heard how developing a culture of sustainability requires different approaches based on the needs of the project or task. Having the right people who can chart the path, pave the way, and unsnarl the barriers is integral to long-term project success. Are you a guru, manager or broker?

Gurus put us on a particular pathway, inspiring and convincing us of the righteousness of our commitment to sustainability. The gurus control the narrative. The message can be as broad as the notion to care for our resources or as focused as extolling the benefits of a single tool, technique, or strategy. To be agnostic about the tool, but clear about the goal, pushes the envelope, even with skeptics, and builds opportunity, value and creativity.

Who are your visionaries, your gurus? Vance Caesar, my leadership teacher at Pepperdine University, used to say that in order for a relationship to work, both parties, whether they be people or organizations, have to feel like they’re getting more than they’re giving. With his words in mind, I think about the relationships I create with people, employers, companies I interact with, even my relationship to sustainable practices. Making these choices integral to my work and life works for me when I feel like I receive a benefit that exceeds the effort.

Managers implement vision, unwinding the spaghetti of policies and negotiating new alliances, putting out fires and carving new pathways forward. They need the full picture and a deep understanding of the goals since projects can take on tangents that move the focus away from the core intent. Data keeps projects grounded and managers need it to ensure that progress is headed in the right direction.

Many of my conversations have used sailing as a metaphor for monitoring progress. The metaphors were powerful tools about choices made and the challenge of maintaining direction. Their references reminded me of a night race with light winds. When I returned onto watch after a short rest, the crew was excited about the boat’s momentum. A check of the compass showed that the boat had been turned around in the darkness and we were headed in the wrong direction, albeit quickly.  No one was watching our direction, only our pace. That night I learned that sometimes slow is fast.

Brokers are nimble actors who facilitate transactions that affect the landscape and influence the culture of business. These actions may not be seen by the general public, but may be keenly felt.  For example, two thirds of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000-2014 were achieved by states moving from coal to natural gas (Saha & Muro, 2016).  Last year alone, more than a third of states realized reductions this way. And yet, the day-to-day experience for energy consumers didn’t change; only their source.

As clean fuel standards take hold and the quality of life improves, we become a more livable city. I remember walking to school through the morning haze. We’d joke that we didn’t trust air we couldn’t see, taste, or touch. Since those days in the 1970s, air quality has improved by more than 70%, but Los Angeles still ranks in the top 10 polluted cities, so we still have a ways to go.

Stepping back to see the full picture:

Businesses are hiring people to look for sustainability opportunities, and the first wave of initiatives often realize cost and environmental savings. But after the low-hanging fruit is gone, the next plateau is harder to reach. We must overcome the perception that sustainability is for the elite. Some of you are working on these next level innovations and finding ways to spread their implementation beyond the early adopters. Places like the Clean Tech Incubator are bringing people together around issues and solutions are the foundation of new companies who are doing well by doing good.

What are you thinking about? What are you doing about it? Where do you go for answers? We attend conferences for inspiration, we read for introspection and reflection, but mostly, we talk and we listen. We build personal relationships that work. We get more than we give.

Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:

  • Ben Stapelton, LA Clean Tech Incubator
  • Brian Falls, Palisades Capital Partners
  • Chris Forney, Brightworks Sustainability
  • Cris Liban, LA Metropolitan Transit Agency
  • Lauren Faber-O’Connell, City of Los Angeles
  • Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board
  • Maya Henderson, Kilroy Realty

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