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Sustainable Leadership Is Not for Sissies

Av Rooth, Vegard 5. desember 2017

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Sustainable leadership is not for sissies
Leaders who want to shape tomorrow's business landscape need to hurry. The future is not coming – it's already here. And, as history teaches us, the only survivors of change will be those who are brave and adaptable enough.

Today "everyone" is adapting to digitalization, automation, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, Big Data and other products of the technological revolution we are in the middle of.

But what exactly is so groundbreaking here? Do the changes we see today have a greater impact than the changes we have seen through history? What about our forefathers who had to adapt to the wheel, the alphabet, the art of printing, the light bulb and the telephone? Were they not just as overwhelmed by these changes as we are by today's changes?

Change always has, and always will, continue to occur. The most adaptable survive, many others die. That's how it works according to Darwin's theory, and that's how it works in business. The most significant change through the ages, though, is perhaps the speed in which change occurs. The question is though, if the relative speed is higher for us today than it was historically?

Companies Die Quicker Than Before

The average lifespan of a corporation in the American S&P 500 Index has changed significantly in the last century. In 1935, the average lifespan of a company was 90 years. In 1992, the average age had fallen to 22 years. Last time anyone checked it was below 15 years, and the Norwegian government recently estimated that the expected lifetime of stock exchange companies could drop to between 5 and 10 years in a few years' time.

The companies who face the most severe life-threatening danger are those who fail to adapt to the new framework conditions for business activities and work life.

The Transition to Sustainability

"What are we supposed to live by when the oil dries up?" That's a question we often hear when the topic is the future of business and work life in Norway – but how does the oil industry respond to this question?

At the beginning of the year, DNV GL published a report that shows that the oil and gas industry see a future in digitalization and sustainability. As much as 61 percent of the 139 Norwegian petroleum companies in the survey say that investments in renewable energy will be part of a long-term strategic shift.

Transitioning to sustainability requires (among other things) that you challenge the products and services that the company lives by today, to find more sustainable products and strategies that the company can live by in the long run.

One of the most fearless examples of sustainable leadership we have seen in Norway is when the Schibsted Corporation dared to bin their traditional business model and cannibalize their own business before anyone else got to it.

Schibsted's strategy is to control the changes, instead of being controlled by them. It is a strategy for the toughest – those who want to arrive at the future first. And the first ones to arrive at the future will be the ones who create it!

Tomorrow's Leaders Are Sustainable

Tomorrow's leadership is all about creating sustainable strategies and sustainable business models. Leaders who want to succeed must find ways to turn sustainability into opportunities and competitive advantages for the company.

Sure, energy consumption will be different in the future. But there will always be rain, and water power is sustainable. And if we don't drill for or spill oil in Lofoten, the most attractive fishing area in Norway, we will still have fish. With change comes opportunity. But we must recognize and seize it!

To an increasing number of leaders, sustainability will be at the top of their agenda, not to mention a part of their job title. Aker BioMarine has a Director Sustainability, Cilia Holmes Indahl. DNV GL Group has a Chief Sustainability Officer, Bjørn Kjærand Haugland. As is well known, progress is not the result of doing things the way they always have been done, and it might be both wise and necessary to have a primus inter pares who leads the way.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Everyone wants to make it to the future, but getting there requires having the will and ability to adapt – not to mention the courage to challenge existing ideas and practices in the pursuit of sustainable business models that can give the company "a long and happy life."

There is obviously no single recipe for success in tomorrow's business landscape. But is not adapting really an option? One thing is certain: Being a sissy and not taking any risk is the biggest risk of them all.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

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Av: Rooth, Vegard

Vegard holds a Master of Management from the Norwegian Business School BI and has additional qualifications from Stanford University and University of Oxford. He has completed a number of interim management assignments and has held temporary positions as CEO and other management roles. Vegard joined InterimLeder AS as managing director in January 2015.

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