I attended one of the better University of Illinois College of Business alumni events, presented by the Social Entrepreneurship Institute, last week on successful business strategies that result in positive social change. This is not an event review, but an observation that encouragement for progress is what we need more of.  And, conversely we need less punishment for falling short when navigating the path to a sustainable balance for future generations.

Social Change

There were great stories of success and challenge from all the panelists.  For me, one of the best comments came from disposable container maker Solo Cup’s Kim C. Frankovich.  Kim is Solo Cup’s VP of Sustainability Programs, and formerly served as corporate counsel at the company.

The event was a moderated panel discussion on social sustainability programs in corporate America, titled “Change Makers.” The panelists presented various views on both being sustainable, and transitioning to being a sustainability-focused company.  There was obvious difference in perspective between the more experienced panelists and those freshly out of University just beginning to engage in this globally human shift.

I asked how the transition was characterized in practice inside an organization.  More specifically, was it a journey, or a destination?  And, what kind of barriers (cost, culture, and other) existed in turning a large organization toward a new direction under a corporate-wide and culture-reinventing sustainability initiative.

Kim responded eloquently and in my mind, perfectly, that it is a series of steps along a journey.  And, that no business can simply “retool” at costs of billions and expect to remain in business very long.  She also shared that it’s a process of gaining internal champions and evangelists, losing them in downsizing, reorganization, or other natural career changes.  She indicated that it was a challenge that requires constant vigilance and dedication to make forward progress.  The press and court of public opinion will always expect perfection overnight – but real progress is often unnoticed, unrecognized and unrewarded.

I for one was impressed that such clear and pragmatic perspectives were laid out, albeit in the final question of the panel discussion for the day.  Kim’s response bring insight into other leaders, as well as consumers to the challenges in terms of culture, stakeholder expectation, fiscal responsibility, and the critical flow of innovation in an organization.

Is the lack of encouragement for sustainability effort hurting our long-term journey down the path to a sustainable future for our children’s generation?  When we publicly punish companies that truly try with sanctions and regulatory penalties, does that hinder open-innovation and cross-pollination in a business-to-business sense?  Does punishment help us learn about what does and does not work. How do we promote innovation through failure in this critical area of sustainability as well as we allow it, and expect it, in all other areas of the commercial world.

I think about what works, punishment or encouragement, with in other aspects of leadership, and know my answer.  What do you think?

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