Predicting the Failure – or Success – of Sustainability Leadership

Ed. Note: Elm Sustainability Partners is exceedingly grateful to Commander Kerry F. Gentry, USN (Ret.) who has granted Elm the use of his leadership assessment framework, data and tools developed over more than forty years as a Commander in the US Navy Submarine service and numerous positions within Computer Sciences Corporation.

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“Let’s make sure our sustainability program and initiatives fail.”

It is doubtful any company thinks like that. Some companies use sustainability as a fundamental business tool and competitive advantage. Internal organizations are created to support the strategy and people are promoted from within or hired from outside to be Directors/Vice Presidents.

But are those individuals leaders or simply managers? Are they suited to moving all the necessary parts of the organization? Or are they predisposed to mediocrity and be ineffectual? No company intends for their sustainability initiatives to disappoint but by not ensuring the needs of the position match the individual, failure is all too often an option.

Two recent business cataclysms – Wells Fargo and Equifax – perfectly illustrate mismatches between leadership needs and their respective CEO’s capabilities. Both resulted in the CEOs losing their jobs, being grilled at Senate hearings, major loss of customers and of course meaningful drops in stock price and investor confidence.

Even more bad news: these CEOs’ inadequacies were predictable. This article presents Elm’s method for assessing leadership capabilities that can help prevent self-destruction of corporate sustainability success due to inadequately matching the correct person to the unique attributes of sustainability.

Leadership is …?

Leadership is often seen as an intangible characteristic few people innately possess. In the corporate world, managers routinely rise through higher levels of management and increased responsibility, yet few become true leaders. There are examples too numerous to count of managers initiated into internal leadership development or mentoring programs, only to stagnate. Enterprises, law firms and management consultants reward situational success (to be explained later) with promotions up to a point, until an individual’s star fades while another individual rises who demonstrates true leadership, or disappoints.

But these failures are often less the fault of the individual than their assignment to a position inappropriate to their personal aptitude. They are the result of how a company assesses and selects individuals for leadership positions.

Leadership itself should be clarified and defined. Most requirements of leadership are universal, but each situation is unique due to the environment in which the individual must perform. There are four primary components:

  • Setting or accepting objectives and goals
  • Aligning objectives and goals of individuals with those of the leader/organization.
  • Influencing those individuals to achieve those objectives of their own volition.
  • Managing risks to those objectives and goals

Situational success is frequently misinterpreted as leadership. A manager’s success is based on the entire team/organizational ecosystem in which the manager is embedded. Changing the team structure/dynamics, or placing that manager in a different setting frequently produces dramatically different results. In other words, managers perceived as leaders may only be successful in a specific situation; if their situation changes, their ability to succeed may falter. In 1969, Laurence J. Peter published The Peter Principle – a theory that promotions are based on a candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Or as commonly summarized – “an employee will be promoted to their level of incompetence.” This is situational success.

Why is situational success not equivalent to leadership? Because each leadership need/position is its own unique situation, with its own unique team/organizational ecosystem.   In assessing leadership, the company must clearly define what is important to be successful in the new role, not how well an individual has performed in their current one.

Leadership is generally confused with management, but they are not the same. Management is characterized by defined processes and learned skills. Because these are conflated, managers are promoted primarily for their management abilities (a technical skill) to the exclusion of other – more important and less teachable – attributes. And, as noted by Laurence J. Peter five decades ago, managerial assessments focus on past performance, not needs of the new position. Managers rise beyond their abilities; leaders rise to their abilities.

The Leadership Wheel

The Leadership Wheel was developed by Commander Gentry as director of the US Navy’s Atlantic Fleet FBM Submarine Training Center. As shown below, it illustrates the relationship between leadership factors. Every position/opportunity requires its own distinctive mix and weighting of leadership characteristics, so there is no “standard.” However, an inventory of frequently identified factors was developed by Commander Gentry and is being adapted by Elm.

At the hub of the wheel are core personality attributes that are necessary for an individual to be a leader in a specific position. These are hard-wired into our brains by the time we are a few years of age. They are essentially not changeable through training, incentives or punishment. Certain abilities and personality attributes – good and bad – exist at different levels within different individuals.

The spokes represent habituated behaviors that characterize an individual’s interaction with others, and are those necessary to the position. Behaviors can be learned to varying extents, depending in large part on an individual’s core personality attributes. Generally, modifying behaviors is effective only when training and intervention is sustained over a long period of time.

The rim represents technical skills necessary for the position and is perhaps the most frustrating paradox in leadership decisions. Individuals tend to be selected for leadership positions based mainly on their technical capabilities. Yet of the three leadership elements, technical skills are the most teachable and easiest to attain/modify. Underlying personality attributes and behaviors are less teachable and therefore tend to be more important in leaders.

 Using information from reports about the recent disasters by Wells Fargo and Equifax CEOs, we can build the following example table with some interesting contrasts – but with similar calamitous results. 

Leadership Element Wells Fargo CEO Equifax CEO
Hub
Morality No Uncertain
Empathy No No
Courage No No
Spoke
Confidence Yes No
Decisiveness Yes No
Rim
Communication No No
Disclosure Knowledge Uncertain No

 

The individual traits are obviously notable, but the dynamics between them are also highly relevant. In the case of Wells Fargo, early assessment of the CEO’s deficient moral compass with high decisiveness would have foreshadowed a propensity to make independent decisions that place the CEO’s own interests ahead of the company’s. And had Equifax identified an apparent lack of courage, decisiveness and confidence as attributes of their CEO, they may have prevented catastrophic hesitation in timely public disclosure of their massive data breach, along with his singling out of one employee as the scapegoat. Recall that hub traits are not teachable and spoke behaviors are minimally learnable; therefore, training and education on those topics would be ineffective at altering the actions of those two individuals.

Characterizing Sustainability for the Company

Having defined principles of leadership, the same must be done for sustainability. Sadly, corporate sustainability still is a victim of ambiguity and inconsistency. It is couched in terms of environmental impact, social issues, human rights, employee satisfaction, safety, chemical content of products, supplier behaviors, corporate transparency, talent retention, climate change, governmental lobbying, governance, community involvement and/or philanthropy. The 2017 United National Sustainable Development Goals encompass 17 different topics.

The breadth of sustainability’s potential scope frustrates corporate efforts to describe the concept internally, let alone outside of the organization. There are also diverse views on where a sustainability function should be placed within an organization – does it fit it the EHS department, Investor Relations, Quality, Finance/Reporting or HR?

Setting criteria for performance, success and leadership is problematic without basic scope/definition of a sustainability function and understanding where it fits organizationally. Successful sustainability leaders have necessary defined characteristics in an appropriate mix to influence others in achieving the company’s sustainability objectives. Obviously, without clarity on what sustainability means and where it fits in the corporate structure, a company will be unable to attain effective leadership, and the individual and program are unlikely to last long or prosper.

Connecting the Dots

The common thread between leadership and sustainability is the need for clarity. Clearly defining sustainability helps establish appropriate leadership characteristics, relative importance of skills and expectations of performance. That is used to establish clear criteria with which the company can appropriately assess individuals and create performance goals.

  • What are the core personality attributes necessary to achieving the objectives that are aligned with the scope/definition of sustainability? Critically, the organization must understand that personality attributes are fundamental to an individual’s personality and difficult to modify. Therefore the individual’s inherent character must be well-suited to the particular position to begin with.
  • What behaviors related to interacting with others are required? Does an individual need to change or adapt to the new position/ecosystem and to what extent can the individual do so?
  • What technical skills are necessary and what is their relative importance? What knowledge does the individual currently possess, are there gaps compared to the requirements of the new position and how important are they?

Spinning the Wheel

Elm is adapting the Leadership Wheel by identifying position requirements and developing dynamic interactive versions in Excel to quantitatively assess individuals against those requirements. In order to create requirements for a successful sustainability leader, an inventory of hub, spoke and wheel competencies is developed using internally identified criteria in conjunction with Commander Gentry’s inventory of frequently identified factors. Once the position-specific inventory is ranked and completed, candidates complete a self-assessment, with the same assessment performed by subordinates, peers, managers, mentors, internal sponsors and others. In some instances, third parties such as customers may also provide valuable input. The assessment process can consist of written questionnaires, tests, interviews and role playing exercises. The results are entered into Excel individually and charted/graphed, allowing the data to be analyzed in different ways and manipulated to reflect changes in position requirements, actual assessment results or what-if scenarios.

Applying the Leadership Wheel in practice for both the enterprise and the individual helps avoid placing individuals in highly stressed positions for which they are ill-suited rather using them where they are most valuable and comfortable – benefitting the company and the individual.

Obvious comparisons arise to what HR departments and recruiters do, but leadership assessments are different in several critical ways.

Leadership Assessment Performance Reviews
Leverages specific data from hundreds of previous structured assessments, with consistent themes Inconsistent data over time due to constantly changing corporate performance management systems, review methods and criteria
Specifically focuses on the individual’s attributes and capabilities by eliminating ecosystem influences on situation success Do not differentiate between the “masking effects” of the ecosystem and the individual’s past performance.   Many times performance is specifically assessed in terms of team – rather than individual – performance
Structured and quantified process of assessing an individual’s attributes and suitability prospectively Use a position requirement statement to compare individuals against each other on past performance. Annual performance reviews are frequently seen as a perfunctory administrative task that is not used after completion

Give us a call to learn more about ensuring the success of your sustainability program by selecting the appropriate leader.

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