Last week I had a conversation with a new customer. I asked this scale-up why they joined the Triodos community. Her answer was: I need a sparring partner on sustainability dilemmas. I laughed and told her that I was writing a paper for a course with this same theme: That we need to have more conversations about sustainability in scale-up boards. No coincidence!
The Sustainability Conversation
We are confronted more and more with the choices we have made and continue to make. We live outside the planetary and human boundaries (see “Donut Economy” by Kate Raworth and “Verborgen impact” by Babette Porcelijn). This leads to a lot of crises that we need to handle with several radical changes:
- Energy transition: reduction and go from fossil to renewable also focusing on sequestration with an awareness of carbon colonialism.
- Food system transformation: more healthy food that restores the soil and the biodiversity as well as a standard of fair income for the farmers all over the world.
- Resources transition: reuse materials and redesign products and buildings so they can be ‘material banks’ instead of going to waste.
- Social and wellbeing: we live in the loneliest century (“De eenzame eeuw” by Noreena Hertz) and never before has there been such a large number of people feeling left out. The differences between “have and have nots” have been rising and even in a rich country like The Netherlands 400.000 children grow up in poverty. This leads to polarization and therefore we need a transformation on a personal as well as a societal level.
All these systemic changes that also correlate and interact can’t be done by governments, organizations, individuals or companies. We need everybody. However, in my opinion start-ups and scale-ups have the most crucial pivoting possibilities. With new purposeful entrepreneurs coming up, I wanted to know more about what is needed for them to scale up. That was my motivation to join the ScaleUpBoard program.
Ambidexterity Leadership and Sustainability
Although all the themes that were presented during the program were valuable to me, the one that really stood out was ambidextrous leadership. We need scale-ups that can exploit and explore simultaneously to be successful and have a more positive impact. Ambidexterity extends to all kinds of issues within a company. We need to emphasize this more to make sure that scale-ups have this leadership and coach them towards more of these skills.
Most management teams of scale-ups that strive for positive impact encounter a lot of sustainability dilemmas during their journey. I think we need to have more conversations about sustainability in boardrooms. Therefore, I’m happy with the recently updated corporate governance code (2022/12/20) in which the first chapter is called “Sustainable long-term value creation”.
Sustainability is often quite narrowly used in companies, but it is a very broad topic with a large variety of challenges. I appreciated the fact that in ScaleUpBoard there was enough attention given to the way we need to coach each other. Sustainability challenges often create polarized standpoints. For example, you either are a social enterprise or you pursue profit; a company steers on financials or on carbon emission reduction; an entrepreneur looks for chances or is focused on risks. But it is never simply one or the other. I believe in conversations where we can overcome the contradictions and look at solutions on how we can use one as well as the other.
To do so we need more skilled (non-executive) board members who:
- Dare to ask difficult questions and are willing to be vulnerable because we don’t have all the answers yet.
- Are competent to build bridges and use networks to get more insights and help to solve the challenges the companies face.
About Patty Zuidhoek
Patty is a Class 13 ScaleUpBoard who is currently the Director of Business Relations at Triodos Bank Before working with Tridos she spent 23 years with ABN Amro Bank. She is the Chairman of the Program Committee at Samen Kansrijk Gezond and is a Board Member of the Triodos Foundation.
References and further reading:
- “Ambidextrous Leadership” by Annemieke Eggenkamp
- “Donut Economy” by Kate Raworth
- “Verborgen impact” by Babette Porcelijn
- “De eenzame eeuw” by Noreena Hertz
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