Leading successful ESG transformations requires managing the present and creating the future.

A key idea from my MBA that keeps coming back to me as I think about how to embed environment, society and governance (ESG) ways of working into businesses is the challenge of balancing time spent managing the present versus time spent managing the future. The idea, and the implied challenge, because it is a challenge, is that to lead an organisation in the twenty-first century successfully, you must find a way to balance the effort and time required to manage the company's current state while devoting time to creating the future.

Covid has been a very visible example of the problem. Organisations have managed the current crisis (taking care of their employees, suppliers, community, and bottom line) while preparing for a new work future in the last two years. Almost every large consultancy blogged about this challenge - balancing the immediate with the long-term. Yet, when it comes to adopting critical reforms to put ESG transformations front and centre in how the company operates, most companies still focus on managing in the present.


I've witnessed the allure of managing at the moment. When you're under time constraints, it's easy to prioritise the urgent over the important. It's all too easy to prioritise what's in front of you over what's important and transformative. In general, the present clamours for your attention louder than the future, and we are rewarded immediately for the good decisions we make. Furthermore, it necessitates fewer painful conversations and encounters less resistance to change. Unfortunately, this focus eventually leads to stagnation and decline. More importantly, given the magnitude of today's challenges, as Paul Polman and Andrew Winston demonstrate, a lack of future thinking in the sustainability space means we don't set nearly ambitious enough goals to change the world.


And we don't even need to think about massive conglomerates to see how the tension between managing the present and creating the future plays out. Imagine yourself in a growing organisation. The market is booming. New work is coming in. You succeed and hire more staff monthly. Yet, you are managing in the present, using systems designed to deliver the work you are now winning. Your focus is on the here and now - the urgent. It is easier and less disruptive to postpone the future changes necessary to maintain growth and support the continued success of your organisation. Making changes in the present, when things are alright, risks disrupting your organisation and the individuals within it. You tell yourself there are more urgent problems and that you'll deal with changes to systems and ways of working when they become critical. Sadly, by the time it's urgent, it's too late. You haven't laid the groundwork for the changes you need to make, your staff have not been prepared for the change and resit it, and now you have to rush to change quickly, undermining the quality of your product. In short, it's a mess.


Most of us, I'm sure, can relate to this scenario. You don't have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or work in government to face these kinds of difficulties. Indeed, the climate crisis and ESG targets, in my opinion, perfectly capture this challenge. For decades, science has been present on the impact of climate change on our world, but there has been limited action due to a lack of ever-increasing urgency. Similarly, we've known for a long time that putting shareholder value first has skewed economic outcomes worldwide. Again, it is difficult to persuade organisations to change their ways without a major shock (e.g. covid, extreme weather, rising sea levels, the list goes on).


Unfortunately, our tendency to focus on the present is extremely limiting, especially now that our global society is on the verge of a major human and ecological crisis. When I look at how most businesses talk about ESG goals and objectives, I notice that they focus on managing the present - on adopting targets and commitments that relieve them of the immediate pressure. Businesses (large and small) that adopt big, hairy, audacious ESG goals, on the other hand, will survive. In the sector where I've spent the last decade and a half, it will be those organisations that can transform themselves into regionally networked centres of excellence, building talent globally that will survive. Not those wedded to providing expertise from London, Washington or Nairobi.


What needs to change? We don't need to become visionary leaders to make progress and restore the balance between managing the present and creating the future. However, we must look up more frequently, consider future trends and challenges, and ask, so what? What does this have to do with how I choose to act?


How are we going to accomplish this? How can we look things up a little more frequently and incorporate future trends into our thinking?


First, recognise that there is no single way to accomplish this. Everyone is unique. We all learn, think, and see the world differently, which means that some people will be more inclined to the blue sky, seeing many possibilities for the future. On the other hand, others will concentrate on delivering in the present. That's great. We require both preferences. I believe the key is to identify your preferences and then surround yourself with people who think differently than you.


The key is to know your style, strengths and preferences. One tool for doing this, which I like because it specifically looks at creativity, is the Kinetic Style Assessment from Kinetic Thinking. This assessment provides an engaging framework for thinking about leadership styles along a spectrum - from focused leadership incremental leadership, playful leadership, and breakaway leadership. As with all assessments, it does not provide a definitive picture; rather, it indicates what you are likely to prefer. We are a mash-up of various styles, and we can learn to play with other styles. That's the key: recognise your preferences and experiment with different styles. If you are a very focused person, try to be more blue sky by reading and challenging your creativity. The graphic below is an excellent summary of the various 'preferences' by profession.


In an organisation, each style is required to manage current challenges and create the future. Making change happen necessitates switching between or prioritising different styles at various stages of transformation. Having a lot of big ideas and goals but not being able to focus on them and make them a reality is as unlikely to create a new future as a group of focused leaders working to manage the present. This is evident on a large scale in the Unilever storey, where Paul Polman and colleagues did their big-picture thinking, but we were equally focused on putting their plan into action.


Second, develop your ability to undertake the 'double task'. Frankly, I find that this can make my skin crawl with the difficulty of holding myself in an uncomfortable space, but it pays off! If we want to build skills for managing the present and creating the future, we need to develop a dual leadership model - to act and reflect on one's actions simultaneously. Practice taking a step back and thinking about potential solutions and options before jumping in to solve a problem. You can accomplish this by taking the time to go for a long walk - one of my neighbours was excellent at this. When confronted with a difficult problem, he would go for a long walk in the middle of the day, cancelling meetings to reflect on some future challenge. Others I know advocate journaling or whiteboard brainstorming. Whatever suits you. The key is to step back from the action, from the desire to 'just act,' and look at the big picture.


I've personally struggled with this 'double task'. My early career success came from doing and delivering. When I moved into a leadership team role, I suddenly found that delivering and doing didn't make me effective. Instead, I often found that I was undermining and micromanaging my colleagues rather than stepping back to take a more strategic view. This default behaviour on my side came out the most clearly, following a significant upheaval in the Board and change in the CEO. While I remained in a leadership role and was determined to keep 'the show on the road', I neglected to step back and create space for my direct reports to process the changes. My default for action closed down important space necessary to rebuild trust, create greater alignment, and build a shared team spirit. The result for me was three months of trust-building to undo a month where I'd focused too much on doing and not enough on listening.


Finally, broaden your knowledge. I realise it's self-evident. Yet, because I have some time, I've been reflecting recently on how little time I made to read and broaden my understanding, not only of my sector but of broader topics. It's impossible to keep up with everything, but finding a way to quickly get a sense of key trends in the news and wider topic areas - such as climate change - is critical for anyone who wants to manage the present and create the future. I've discovered that audiobooks, podcasts, and blogs can be useful sources of information. But I'm also feeling overwhelmed by all of this information. So much so that I frequently turn off. As I've reflected on what works for me, I've realised that I should take a fixed volume approach to productivity and choose what I won't learn about rather than trying to know everything.


Manage the present, and create the future.

We face significant global challenges. Leaders of small teams to large conglomerates must develop the ability to manage the present while also creating the future. I challenge every leader to consider where they spend most of their time. Is the time allotted appropriate for the challenges your company is currently facing and will likely face in the future? Do you have a good idea of the major future trends?


We must recognise that, no matter how entrepreneurial we want our leaders to be, they are constrained by today's challenges, such as inflation, rising unemployment, and so on. The climate crisis may be pushing us toward a world in which we must act differently, but that does not negate the challenge of managing the day today. Simultaneously, we are shaping the future. We're looking for new ways to think and act as a society, challenge ourselves to think and act differently to build a better future for ourselves and, more importantly, our children and grandchildren.


Successful organisations accept the challenge of managing in the present while creating the future, whereas shrinking and declining organisations focus solely on the present.