Mention sustainability in a job interview ten years ago and chances are you'd be seen as a flakey eco-warrior with a lack of 'real' business acumen. Fast-forward to 2013 and the 'S' word could well be your passport to career progression.
As its name suggests, Sustainability quite literally means the ability to sustain oneself – and as the world continues to exist in a state of flux, this ability has never been more crucial.
A trend pervading boardroom agendas industry-wide is the issue of Complexity; those 'wicked' problems that keep executives up at night. The multi-layered, ever-evolving type that are mostly unexpected and usually beyond direct control.
The Global Financial Crisis was a complex issue with unprecedented impact that clearly highlighted the inter-connectedness of the world. Likewise, individual businesses face their own complex issues on a near daily basis - whether it is balancing stakeholder interest or harnessing internal innovation potential – they are all dictated by numerous variables that could unexpectedly derail an organisation at any moment. Technology has dramatically changed the world, yet many of our business processes haven't kept up. As Albert Einstein famously said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
From this perspective, leadership and sustainability are inseparable. It is no longer possible to have a robust long-term strategy that doesn't incorporate sustainability; and this isn't something that can be achieved through an isolated committee. A true commitment to sustainability requires a paradigm shift in the traditional understanding of business success, as 'best practice' strategies increasingly fail to deliver in the new world. There are no 'quick fix' solutions and no individual can be the hero.
The only approach to managing the complexity facing organisations today is for leaders to take a collaborative approach and start harnessing the collective wisdom that exists within their organisation.
As more businesses awaken to this necessity, demand is emerging for a new calibre of workforce – with the unique capacity to think holistically and build organisational resilience in a community where environment and enterprise are inextricably connected.
Here in Australia, a number of forward-thinking universities are now responding to the inevitable demand for a new generation of leaders.
ACU Executive Education (part of the Australian Catholic University) will this year launch its new flagship course, the Executive Certificate in Sustainable Enterprise, a pioneering program which encourages participants to challenge their value systems while developing critical systemic and innovative thinking skills.
Dr Robert Kay, founder of strategy consultancy Incept Labs and author of CEO Perspectives of Resilience, leads the Innovation for Sustainability unit at ACU.
"It is undoubtedly possible for businesses to be both sustainable and highly profitable. In fact, we will get to the point where only those investing in sustainable practices will survive"
ACU are now attracting a growing wave of leaders who are visionary enough to let go of the old ways of operating and, through collaboration and entrepreneurial flair, create truly high-performing enterprises.
Despite escaping the predicted apocalypse of December 21st, we cannot deny that we are facing a new world. And perhaps only those taking the 'S' word seriously will be strong enough to survive.