Having worked with businesses to embed sustainability in their practices over the last eight years, I was part of several voices calling for systems change – to go beyond band-aid solutions and address the root causes behind each of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
At some level, change seems to be happening. For example, the latest statement released by the Business Roundtable (the association of close to 200 CEOs of America’s largest companies) redefines the purpose of a corporation to one which serves all, rather than the few.
And yet, the translation of such a statement into practice at all levels of these companies, and in the wider economy, isn’t necessarily a given. I’ve heard and seen too many commitments made (and broken) by CEOs over the years.
Where else might change come from?
As part of my journey to learn deeply about systems and systems change, I’ve been searching for answers both within myself and amidst the ordinary everyday. The big question for me this year has been:
How can I as an individual, and we, as a collective, be part of leading change in our systems?
This was the question I continued to hold as I attended the European B Corp Summit in Amsterdam last month. For those unfamiliar with B Corps, they are a growing global movement of companies doing business that’s good for all stakeholders (including people and planet), not just shareholders.
There is much to celebrate. The movement is flourishing worldwide (now over 3,000 B Corps). There is a real sense of progress made as The Body Shop joined a group of other publicly listed companies with B Corp status, whilst Danone Belgium and Netherlands pushed forward Danone Group’s ambition to become the largest international B Corp by 2030.
But there was also a sobering reminder that whilst the progress of individual companies is crucial, it is not enough. Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B Lab, spoke the hard-to-hear truth:
It is no longer enough to be the change. We need to be activists calling out the dysfunctional codes in the capital markets and elsewhere. We need system change.
But the path towards system change is unmarked. We know what needs to change, and lending our voices to call out the change needed is a start. But how will the change happen?
As I searched around the conference for clues, the last sentence of the B Corp Declaration of Independence kept jumping out at me:
To do no harm and benefit all requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.
In particular, I was struck by the gravity of the call to be “responsible for each other”. This seemed to be an invitation to go beyond the basics of pushing each other to complete our B Impact Assessment reviews on time or to share learning and best practice with each other.
Can we remove that mental scan we sometimes do when we first “suss” out whether someone is worth our time to engage? I’m guilty of doing this. To listen to their story, and consider what we might learn from them. To share our stories back with generosity.
Perhaps it’s also about intentionally helping each other to scale what’s working well – to play a role in transforming the Ugly Ducklings amongst us into Green Swans (concepts shared by John Elkington, founder of the UK B Corp Volans, during his keynote, taken from his upcoming book).
But I have a hunch that we can go even further with it.
Can we create a safe space to voice more fundamental questions or possible unintended consequences we might notice in fellow B Corps, or perhaps in our wider movement? Exercising our voice within the system of B Corps – not in the spirit of criticism or blame – but in the spirit of being truly responsible for each other, and in service of a greater good.
To listen deeply. To be honest about the difficulties we face, so help can come our way. To be courageous in raising the difficult trade-offs we face, and hold each other to account in choosing the better path.
Can we collectively mourn and bury the solutions from among us that are no longer fit for purpose, however well-intentioned the original intent or practical the trade-offs might be?
I have a sense that modeling what co-responsibility looks like in the immediate systems we operate in could be one of many starting points for changing the wider system. We could:
- First allow ourselves to continue changing (no matter how well we’re already doing!)
- Be responsible for welcoming even more diversity into our system, so that we have richer collective intelligence to build on.
- Try to remove unhelpful power dynamics that often comes from assigning blame and establishing right and wrong.
- Create enough trust for us to listen deeply, and to admit “we don’t know” as the basis for a genuine coming together to figure things out.
The B Corp community – and indeed all the other communities gathering in the name of inspiring positive change – can be the rehearsal stage for the many conversations we still need to have with our politicians, those controlling capital markets and with other businesses unable to see a possible alternative.
And this is part of the inspiration and intention behind the new Collective Impact Leadership Programme I’m designing at She Leads Change. We welcome females from diverse backgrounds to grow their personal and collective capacities for leading systemic change in a changing world across self, team, organisation, sector, and communities.
Our hope is to provide a “rehearsal stage” for women who want to lead with confidence and courage – in the here and now, and in both the big and small.
Whether in the B Corp community, She Leads Change or other communities of change, I look forward to hearing more conversations that continue to broaden and become about our common system.
About the author:
Jacqueline Lim is passionate about enabling the conditions for systems change to happen – amongst individuals, organisations and at the various intersections in society and our environment. She is an independent advisor, facilitator, and strategist working alongside different organisations, including She Leads Change, Liminal, and the Finance Innovation Lab. Previously, she worked at Volans, the first B Corp in the UK, and was part of the team that incubated the start of the B Corp movement in the UK. Get in touch with her at email@example.com.
About She Leads Change:
She Leads Change began at the end of 2017 when a group of women came together to learn and support each other in their journey toward leading positive change. Over 100 women have since been through our programmes, joining our growing community which now includes a panel of over 60 coaches and mentors. As a not-for-profit project, we aim to reach all leaders irrespective of ability to self-fund. We also offer sponsorships to support women who represent or work with grassroots or under-represented communities. Get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to find more courage, confidence, and competence to lead in a changing world.