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Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies

This blog post is the culmination of a seven-part series on our core values at Sustrana.  We wanted to share our values to help our readers understand what we stand for and what motivates us every day.  As we wrapped up our values discovery process, it occurred to us that what we were describing were actions we saw reflected in the work of sustainability professionals and our customers.  That work and dedication inspires us every day. We hope in some small way this series will help you to aim higher, stretch further, and be more than you thought you could in 2018 and beyond.

It was 6:30 am. I was behind schedule, yet I sat on the edge of the bathtub in my bathrobe, iPhone in hand, pulled into the depths of a long article that chilled me to the bone. I imagine most of us have had that experience over the last few years, as we’ve had no shortage of depressing news.  Yet this article about the sexual harassment endured by women at Ford plants in Chicago felt different.

I am not exactly sure why it had such a powerful effect on me, but I spent the next few days reflecting on this tragic situation, trying to make sense of how such a culture of harassment had been created, how it could have been sustained for so long, and why so little was done to change it.  Based on the recent string of toppling leaders as a result of sexual harassment, it seems our “culture problem” extends far beyond Ford. One might conclude that it is an epidemic.

Organizational values and ethics have been on the sustainability list of issues in our software from the start, but they are often glossed over by sustainability teams. Many sustainability managers feel they are too amorphous or soft.  Others feel they don’t have the authority to address them.  One of my first reactions to this article and our current string of leadership failures was that we are going to have to increase the focus on values and ethics as a key sustainability issue.  My second thought was less surprising and made me smile.  The forward-thinking vision and intelligence of my co-founder, Nancy Cleveland, never ceases to amaze me.

As Nancy mentioned in her blog introducing our company values blog series, through our self-discovery process of defining our values, we not only articulated and honed the values that encompass our culture, we also realized how deeply those values were connected to the success of sustainability professionals overall. The commonality lies in the fact that we are all change makers, and change makers need to think and act differently.  The change making nature of sustainability work requires a values-based approach.

David Needle, in his book Business in Context: An Introduction to Business and Its Environment (2004), notes that organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs, and principles of the members.  These values and behaviors come together to contribute to the social and psychological environment of an organization. That resulting cultural DNA can be positive or negative, toxic or inspiring.

As sustainability professionals, our goal is to create positives.  Per Kim Quick’s blog, we must find the positive things that are happening and amplify them to a point where doing so becomes permanent; part of the DNA of the company.  The current cultural norms within any given organization will dictate how hard or easy that task will be.  It also means that sustainability managers will eventually find themselves smack dab in the middle of changing culture.

Creating – or changing – culture in an organization is a tremendous challenge. This was the primary focus of the New York Times article on Ford’s harassment challenges.  Often the cultural tone is set by the founder of an organization.  Back in the early 1900s, Henry Ford was a pioneer in his focus on the well-being of his workforce.  As an organization grows, maintaining that culture becomes more difficult.  Many factors mix to influence the culture and various leaders’ fingerprints are added to the DNA.  It takes a concerted and sustained effort by consecutive leaders to have an organization live and breathe consistent values over decades.  (This is part of the genius and vision of the certified B Corp movement that embeds these values concepts in a company’s governing documents.)

To achieve short term impact and create business value as a sustainability leader requires intelligence, resourcefulness, organization, and good communication skills. To have a serious, long term impact on the company as a sustainability leader, culture change is almost always needed.  Sustainability managers must pull from deep reserves and develop powerful skill sets.  It’s hard work.

This is in large part because culture change is personal.  Company culture is, by definition, where professional and personal meet. Our own values dictate how we interact with others, and this interaction creates the underpinnings of culture.  Because of the personal influence, anything that attempts to shift culture will get emotional. A unique set of leadership qualities and skills is required to navigate these shifts.

We are not suggesting that Sustrana’s values hold all the answers to this challenge.  Yet, what we observed is that they provide a strong foundation from which sustainability leaders can build to make a significant impact.  A values roadmap of sorts.

The following is a brief review of our values and blog series, but I encourage you to read each blog in full:

  1. As Jenny Hoffman describes, starting with personal introspection and a deep understanding of your own personal values enables you to approach conversations with authenticity and cultivate authenticity in others.  This will enable you to identify real issues that will facilitate or impede progress in the future.
  2. Following Mel Schmidt’s advice, a practice of listening deeply shows others that you want to establish collaborative and inclusive solutions. This will earn you the trust and respect of your colleagues. On the flip side, assuming your vision or view of the world is the right one is a surefire way to fail.
  3. Lili Pita reminds us of the importance of going into conversations with an open mind.  Consciously ridding yourself of bias as a regular process will allow you to be receptive to ideas from people you previously would have dismissed. Get comfortable with disagreement and not getting your way. Initially it might be uncomfortable, but eventually it will be liberating and inspiring.
  4. Kim Quick helps us understand that staying positive, despite challenges both internally and in the world, is essential to opening the flow of creativity. This flow allows us to find constructive and innovative solutions to difficult problems. Over time, as the practice grows, it establishes a new normal of creating positives in the organization.
  5. And lastly, Janet Williams explains how the combination of all of the above enable sustainability leaders to both inspire and empowerothers to tackle and resolve monumental issues both at the company and societal levels over the long term.

Establishing or re-invigorating a culture based on core values is a long-term project with no quantifiable ROI, but the work is essential to the advancement of society. These are changes that must happen for us to solve the monumental and complex problems we face.  Sustainability managers are ideally positioned to actualize this change.  When armed with solid, well-thought-out values (and a good dose of perseverance), our sustainability leaders will be up to the challenge…and will emerge victorious.

This is the seventh and last in a series of blogs about Core Values:

  1. Core Values: How Differences Helped Define a Sustainability Culture
  2. Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent
  3. An Open Mind: the Superpowers of Diversity and Inclusion
  4. Cultivating Authenticity
  5. The Power of Positives: Creating a Community for Impact
  6. Inspire & Empower: Why It’s Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table
  7. Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies