For over twenty years, I have been one of those “consultants,” yet never as a full-time occupation, and often on a voluntary or unpaid basis. Being unpaid actually has some amazing advantages when it comes to speaking honestly.
I have worked with many Fortune 500 companies as well as with dozens of start-ups and I’ve come to the conclusion that transformational change is not possible for multi-national corporations. Even radical change isn’t possible, unless they find themselves with a new CEO who’s hell-bent and obsessively passionate about trying to make the transformation happen (example, Paul Pulman at Unilever).
I have conducted no research to verify my assertion. It’s simply my belief based on my own experience and observations.
The question is, why? I have five suppositions:
1) The momentum to maintain the status quo is too strong. While many companies make significant progress on the path to sustainability (General Electric) at the end of the day, it’s not transformational. The company is at best, far less bad, than it was before. Unfortunately, it never comes close to being a net-positive business, which would generate a greater positive impact on the planet and society than it’s contribution to global climate change, inequality or the regeneration of the planets natural resources. These better companies still evade paying their taxes and serve as conduits to concentrate wealth.
2) Consultants always set the bar too low. Most consultants have never experienced transformational change, let alone have any idea what’s required to facilitate it. Their concern lies in ensuring they retain the client and the fees associated. The most important issues remain “off the table.”
3) The disincentives are too great. Whether it’s executive compensation linked to short-term goals; fear of how Wall Street will respond, policies and subsidies that incentivize the continuation of unsustainable practices; or consumers that have been convinced to purchase unsustainable products, the momentum to stay the same is always greater then the belief in the potential for real change.
4) Leadership isn’t leading. Most companies don’t have a CEO who’s hell bent and obsessively passionate about trying to make transformation happen. This type of change simply can’t happen with our committed leadership at the highest level.
5) Customers might stop buying. Consumer facing companies have convinced their customers that they need “whiter than white” clothes, a new pocketbook every season, and twelve types of hair conditioner. Products that are “net-positive” are often unlikely to meet this set of unnecessary needs.
Sadly, I’ve concluded that change, transformational change, will only happen when the status quo is threatened with destruction. Where coal is outlawed, pesticides are made illegal, the price of water is greater than soft drink brands can afford, manufacturers are charged with the cost of disposing of their own products at the end of their life, and factories located in low lying areas are destroyed by climate change-related storms. Transformational change is, however, close at hand.