Do you want to advance Sustainability in your organization?
By Rich Rovito
Bob Willard’s transformation into a leading expert on corporate sustainability strategies took root when he enrolled in a few courses focused on environmental issues as he was winding down a nearly 35-year corporate career.
A resident of the Toronto a
rea, Willard spent more than three decades at IBM Canada Ltd. in a variety of professional and management positions, holding roles in product, business and marketing management and spending nearly 10 years in leadership development.
“Most of my career had nothing to do with sustainability,” Willard said. “As I was doing the leadership development part, I enrolled in a part-time master’s degree program at the University of Toronto. In the process, I took a few credits on environmental issues. As I got into it, I started to realize that there were some pretty big problems and we needed to get businesses engaged in helping to solve them.”
Willard will deliver the keynote address on the second day of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council’s virtual conference on Dec. 8-9 and will also speak in a session about the business case for sustainability to leaders.
After retiring from IBM, Willard became a guru of sorts on corporate sustainability. He has authored six books, beginning with The Sustainability Advantage in 2002, which he developed from the thesis for his master’s degree, and has delivered more than 1,300 speeches. His extensive master slide decks, toolkits, templates and videos offer capacity-building resources for companies interested in sustainability.
Oftentimes, the most daunting challenge can be convincing businesses that it’s in their self-interest to expand their sustainability efforts, Willard said. “That led me to the realization that businesses can’t do anything unless there is a justification to support their actions,” Willard said. Convincing companies of the business case for sustainability is the “holy grail” for those who develop environmental and social strategies for businesses, he added.
“There are different drivers on the horizon these days than there used to be,” he said. “Investors are more interested in the track record of companies on sustainability issues.” Companies often mention three inhibitors when it comes to expanding their sustainability programs – cost, time and expertise.
“We can figure out the time and the expertise part if we can convince them that this is a good business case and a good investment,” Willard said. “That’s what I’m going to be talking about at the conference. What’s in it for a company if they were not to do anything radically new but simply do what many other companies have already done on the environmental and social side, focus on best practices and implement them in their own organizations.”
Willard also will discuss tools that are available to help companies calculate how much more profit they could earn by implementing sustainability strategies.
“I’ll also discuss how to do a cost-benefit analysis for a particular project that is going to get them to the pot of gold at the end of the sustainability rainbow,” he said. “Most folks in the sustainability arena unfortunately aren’t comfortable describing the benefits of what they are undertaking in terms that a chief financial officer would be comfortable with. I’ll address how to cost justify a project in CFO-friendly terms.”
In his keynote address, Willard will discuss how to be a leader for change on sustainability, even if an employee isn’t working from a position of power.
Sustainability, admittedly, is becoming much more mainstream, in part because it makes good business sense, Willard said.
“Paying attention to your energy, water, materials, waste footprint and greenhouse gasses becomes everybody’s responsibility, especially in the manufacturing sector,” he said. “Climate change has been a lightning rod for attention to sustainability related issues. There’s a huge concern about climate change being a threat to economies and businesses. That’s been echoed by economists, bankers and investors. When you get those folks starting to rattle the corporate cage, all of a sudden it matters. If they think it’s important, it’s important.”
There are catalysts for companies that are starting to wake up to these issues, Willard said. “And as they do that, we need to reassure them that this is not asking them to make a sacrifice but it’s actually in their self-interest to be more careful about their energy, water, material and waste, as well as how they treat their employees and the way in which they interrelate with their communities,” he said. “The whole package.”
Even with a clear-cut business case for sustainability, it can be difficult to get company management to sit still long enough to listen, Willard said.
“If you are a small and mid-size manufacturer especially, you are often just trying to survive,” he said. “The bandwidth for thinking about this stuff is pretty low. Part of the challenge we have is not to talk about sustainability but to talk about business issues. How are they going to save on their expenses and treat their employees in a way that will allow them to be more resilient in the face of multiple crises? We are going through the COVID-19 crisis and the climate change crises right now. This is just the beginning. We are going to have a pretty permanent state of crisis and companies need to adopt business models that allow them to not only weather the storms but to be more resilient and flourish in very different business environments.”
Key sustainability attributes are needed for companies to not only survive but thrive, Willard insisted.
“They are just flat-out smart business,” he said.
Companies can take advantage of the free, open-source tools that can be download from Willard’s website at: https://sustainabilityadvantage.com/