Breaking Out of the Peloton

14 Aug 2012Jeff Erikson

Everywhere you look, it’s all about the Olympics!

One of the earliest events, occurring the day after the opening ceremonies, was the men’s cycling road race – a 250 km route that finished through the streets of London.

An avid cyclist myself (I am proud to say that I have completed three 100-mile races), I was happy to tune in to catch the end of the race.

As I watched two competitors pull away from the main pack (otherwise known as the peloton) — and sprint toward the finish, I thought about what it takes to win a race like that and what parallels can be drawn for those of us in the sustainability field.

It starts with vision and strategy. The best riders in the world see themselves winning big races, and they know they can do it. For each race they develop a strategy: when to push hard, when to conserve; how to leverage their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses; how to work with their competitors and how to gain advantage over them.

Communication and engagement with the other cyclists is essential during the race. Communication — both verbal and non-verbal — can help riders avoid crashes and signal intentions to the benefit of all of the racers. And any cyclist, no matter how strong he or she is, cannot win without cooperating with other riders. A rider also needs to know when to lead and when to follow. It’s essential to be comfortable doing both.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to performance. A strong vision, a good strategy, constant communication and effective engagement with others is all for naught if a cyclist doesn’t have the skills, strength, technique and endurance to outperform the others. Practice, preparation and patience are essential. Winning won’t happen without putting in the miles of training. Investing in the right equipment and getting good coaching are also important.

The ability to integrate all these elements and pull it all together with courage and boldness is what makes a winner. The same is true of sustainability. The companies leading in this sphere are the ones who have vision, engage with others and are working to close the gap between strategy and actual performance.

For the past few years, SustainAbility and GlobeScan have conducted surveys of sustainability experts and practitioners. Each year we run a survey on leadership; a story on the 2012 survey appeared in GreenBiz.com in March. One of the questions we ask is what company is a leader in corporate sustainability. And we ask why.

Sifting through the responses, several attributes appear. Leadership companies:

  • have a strong vision
  • address critical challenges
  • propose big ideas
  • think long term
  • commit significant resources
  • show evidence of integration
  • have a prominent CEO
  • communicate effectively

Or to put it more simply, leadership companies are strong in all three corners of the leadership triangle.

Many companies are strong in one or two areas of the triangle — think BP during its Beyond Petroleum days (strong vision and communication, but poor integration/performance) or ExxonMobil (strong operational performance but poor engagement/communication and a business-as-usual vision and strategy).

But those that land at the top of leadership surveys and stay there are strong in all three areas. The 2012 Sustainability Leaders Survey places Unilever, Interface, GE, Patagonia and Walmart at the top of the rankings. Each of those companies has a strategy that addresses the full triangle.

What does your triangle look like? And what would be required to break out of the sustainability peloton and ride with the leaders?

In sustainability, as in cycling, it takes a vision of what can be, commitment, engagement with others and a lot of hard work.

The difference, of course, is that when we are talking about creating a more sustainable world, there is no finish line.

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