(As Originally Published on Medium)

We are all sailing together in uncharted waters. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. But the analogy is apt. As we complete the first quintile of the 21st century, we are certainly in new territory — especially as it relates to the economics of sustainability and the rising demand for genuine stewardship and social justice throughout the myriad supply chains upon which we all depend. Already, our world today is markedly different than the world of 1999 — whether in terms of technology, climate change, raging fires, swelling seas (and swelling numbers of climate refugees); or in terms of dramatically shifting demographics as boomers retire and millennials become an increasingly potent economic and cultural force in the marketplace.

These are uncharted waters, to be sure.

As I discussed in my recent piece, “A Perfect Storm… of Hope,” and as Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, recently indicated in his 2018 Letter to CEOs, sustainability is no longer an option in strategic planning. It is no longer superficial window dressing. It is now essential.

Sustainability is central to the survival of companies and organizations of all sizes. In their recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why Sustainability is a Board Level Risk,” Deloitte Global experts Dan Konigsburg, Michael Rossen, and their colleagues Kristen Sullivan and Christine Robinson from Deloitte & Touche assert, “If a company doesn’t tell its sustainability story, someone else will…” and, “Careful consideration of the needs of a broader universe of stakeholders ultimately drives value for shareholders.” In their WSJ article, the pose several key questions for executives and directors:

  • “How frequently do we discuss sustainability risks?
  • Do we have a board committee focused on sustainability risk?
  • Who on the board has sustainability competence?”

These are not fringe activists. These are among the most senior and expert compliance, governance and accountancy professionals in the world, advising the captains of the world’s largest companies and organizations.

We are in new territory!

The most intelligent, most enlightened corporate and civic leaders — the captains of great ships — are seeing beyond the vicissitudes of the near-term sea-weather (sometimes choppy, sometimes calm), in order to develop far greater perspective on where they are and where they want to go. They are recognizing that their navigational maps from yesterday are incomplete and insufficient to navigate the new waters of today and tomorrow. They understand the status quo won’t work going forward, and are recognizing that their deep experience and hard-earned expertise of the past isn’t necessarily what’s needed to lead in the future. They are increasingly realizing that their business and organizational management frameworks — the navigational maps — of the 20th century, are no longer the best guides in today’s world.

But, what do they need?

They need newer, more complete maps for guidance in the century of sustainability!

That is, in a word, the smartest, most adaptive corporate and civic leaders are developing their maps, and are doing so in a highly collaborative and openly transparent way. The most insightful of these captains have at their sides the most important lieutenants to help them with this singularly defining challenge of our times — they have Chief Sustainability Officers: CSOs. The challenge of prospering in the coming years reaches way beyond mere technical challenges of energy systems and building envelopes. They reach way beyond the complex challenges of social and environmental sustainability within the context of global supply chains. They reach all the way into the deeper waters of our cultural ethos — the underlying values, ethics and purpose for doing anything in the marketplace at all.

CSOs are like map-makers. Like a special guild, we share information with each other, and weave together the latest information and inspiration in actionable plans. We incorporate the most rapid advances not only in supply chain and marketing management, but also in psychology and the complex sciences of holistic well-being that are foundational to advanced creativity, and the sustained loyalty and dedication organizations need from their teams. CSOs are helping organizations cultivate their market relevance from the inside out, and are guiding these great voyages into the seas of the future. We help organizational leaders ask and answer questions like:

  • How are our supply chains impacting people and ecosystems world-wide?
  • Is our internal HR and employee benefit framework designed around health, well-being, thriving and community engagement?
  • Does our technology profile align with our cultural commitments?
  • Are we demonstrating innovation and leadership to our customers and the communities we serve?

The whole world — especially the younger generations — is watching all of this with increasingly discerning and discriminating eyes… and wallets. We are shopping and buying accordingly. We are demanding greater transparency and greater responsibility — real responsibility — rooted in an authentic ethos of stewardship. And in this case, we will get what we demand!

The world is going to quickly decide which of the great corporate ships are going to sink, which are going to crash upon unforgiving rocky shores, and which are going to succeed in their long voyages. There will be winners, and there will be those for whom rocky shoals, merciless reefs and churning cliff-strewn shores await. Without the advancing intelligence of their CSO lieutenants, and CSOs’ rapidly developing set of navigational maps, many of today’s captains and ships will be running aground in ruinous disaster.

Those who do nothing — sheltering in the proverbial safe-harbors of the status quo? They will lose relevance and market share at quickening rates as the great storms of global economic change blow everywhere. For the publicly-traded behemoths, this can quickly spell a spiral death: marginal loss of market share results in declines in share-value, and thus declines in the capital required for innovation and acquisition of more relevant brands and products — an accelerating cycle of market destruction for those who do not quickly and earnestly adapt.

But others will succeed. Others will sail the high seas and voyage into great, glorious waters — led by the foresight and the courage of strong hearts — literally. In these new waters, heart-forward and heart-centric leadership will be absolutely essential. To survive and thrive in the context of environmental stewardship, social justice and spiritually grounded performance in a profoundly changing economic context, heart-centered leadership will be essential.

This means that successful executives and other organizational leaders will understand that sustainability is about much more than advanced technology. The keys to sustainability cannot all be captured in spreadsheets — however complex they may be — nor can they be entirely understood through the lenses of engineering, computer science, bio-technology, or financial accounting. To the contrary! The organizations who understand the centrality of heart, of culture, and of the moral ethos of caring for each other and caring for our shared ecologies are going to win.

And to win, they require the best maps possible.

Where are those maps found?

They are found among the most advanced CSOs, and within their dynamic networks of information sharing, best practices, and cutting-edge ideation and thought leadership. This emerging CSO guild possesses the maps, and the keys to interpreting and navigating by them.

The essential task of each captain — with the essential support of that CSO lieutenant — is to develop the map as quickly as possible. And then sail by it. Much like the voyagers of the middle of the last millennium did during that great age of exploration — the dawn of our global era.

Today, captains have to do the map-making work — and the sailing — that allows them to get where they want to go at the helms of their great ships. They are wise to align with the CSO guild — and to access the heart-centric wisdom and advanced technical expertise required in these uncharted waters.

See you out there on the high seas!

Aaron William Perry is a consultant, author and speaker. He advises companies, municipalities and universities through his “CSO for Hire” offerings and hosts the weekly Stewardship & Sustainability Podcast.



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