The field of sustainability is constantly evolving. Organizations will need to build adaptive teams that continue to learn and grow through change.
Sustainability practitioners work within a complex and fast-changing business and legal landscape, which can contribute to burnout
Coaches can help organizations strengthen collaborative and adaptive staff to build lasting sustainability teams
Adaptive teams that anticipate change and embrace continued learning are better equipped to innovate
Building a strong sustainability program requires a focus on collaborative teams
The fast-paced and evolving nature of sustainability work requires keeping a broad perspective and balancing competing objectives. However, sustainability practitioners report struggling with burnout due to the scope and complexity of global issues. As organizations look to reimagine their environmental and social impact plans, they will also need to develop strategies to help sustainability leaders thrive in their efforts. Creating a collaborative team environment is one way that organizations can enhance resilience and adaptability. In a group dynamic, all members are able to share labor and learn from their peers.
Sustainability experts come from diverse backgrounds and learn to work across disciplines to examine interconnected and interdependent systems by acting as skilled generalists. Wisdom Weaver Marilyn Friedmann, a coach and business strategy consultant, recognizes that companies “cannot expect one person to have all the expertise. Developing a balanced strategy is also about combining financial skillsets with the sustainability thought process.” She encourages organizations to build teams that combine a balance of skills and perspectives. Creating diverse, collaborative teams offers the benefit of shared resources and knowledge.
Sharing her experience coaching sustainability teams in the public sector, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Josie McLean reveals that the team dynamic produces unique momentum. “With a group of people, they can gain much more courage together than an individual on their own. So, if you’re working with a group, they’ll become bolder than they would on their own. They would try stuff out that they would never do on their own.”
Effective teams see failure and limitations as opportunities for growth and adaptation
Speaking on the challenges that sustainability teams will face, Wisdom Weaver Arisa Kishigami notes that practitioners benefit from being open to the learning process. She explains, “For example, when investors ask companies to address employee mental health, they emphasize having a culture of openness, starting from the very top. Being able to be open about having good and bad times and being able to talk about that freely can be applied to other issues. With climate change as well, where you can admit the challenges, you can then come up with the solutions.” When teams recognize setbacks and learn from their mistakes, they become more adaptable and resilient to future challenges.
Arisa also highlights that growing pains are to be expected because sustainability is a modern field. “One important thing for leaders is to appreciate that they may not have perfect answers or the ability to test things out. And potentially admit to small mistakes along the way but continue to evolve and progress. With these accounting standards, it took more than 100 years to create climate accounting standards from a financial perspective. So, of course, the new process of incorporating the environmental and social aspects will not be perfect from day one.”
“Being able to work with a sense of urgency while also being thoughtful about it and taking the time to learn and have dialogue that’s the big tension leaders have. And with that comes potential burnout.”
Adaptive teams welcome new voices and perspectives
Collaboration invites and seeks out new perspectives. To support this collaborative inquiry, Nadine reflects that leaders need humility and inclusivity. She explains, “along with collaboration, really thoughtful collaboration means that you can come to collaboration with the diversity, equity, inclusion, lens.” Research on team performance suggests that diverse teams benefit from a greater pool of experiences, enhancing creativity and innovation.
Working with executive boards in Japan, Arisa finds that diverse leadership can shift perspectives in a way that streamlines work. “Bringing out new leaders and interacting with those companies, you do feel that they are more flexible in their thought process to think about how to combine business and sustainability into one process. And I think the next step would be to get the non-executive roles to be more diverse from a generational perspective as well.”
Diverse participation in sustainability programs can also produce more equitable solutions that consider otherwise underrepresented voices. Marginalized and Indigenous communities are often excluded from key decision-making spaces while facing a greater burden from climate impact. However, these communities develop ways of living in partnership with the ecosystem that can inform larger sustainability efforts. For Nadine, elevating diverse voices is essential to addressing planetary health. She insists that “we have all the solutions at our fingertips. It’s just more of a willingness to take on new business models, experiment with different solutions, and innovate around different types of partnerships, which might involve talking to folks we’re not normally accustomed to speaking with.”
Coaches can help strengthen and support adaptive teams of sustainability leaders by:
- Helping teams to identify missing perspectives and recruit new members to fill talent and knowledge gaps, including traditionally marginalized voices
- Supporting interdisciplinary teams to “map” their skills and experience to most fully leverage team member assets by project
- Addressing the risk for burnout and supporting teams to explore strategies for resilience and personal well-being
Coaching Empowers People
Social impact and sustainability professionals experience burnout when they cannot see the impact of their work. Others may be discouraged by the scope and severity of climate degradation. Lack of clarity around project scope and insufficient resources to address organizational challenges may also contribute to burnout. Professionals in social impact and sustainability can benefit from coaching, which helps them recognize and celebrate interim success, create networks of support, and practice self-care. Some coaches have even tailored their work to support professionals in sustainability to build purpose-driven careers without sacrificing their own well-being.
Coaching also offers opportunities to address gaps between goals and resources available to social impact and sustainability professionals. Because sustainability transformation requires strong teams, team coaching can help build a collaborative culture that supports individual and team resiliency. Teams can benefit from coaching engagements to identify strengths and assets, as well as to recruit new members to fill gaps in knowledge or expertise. Established with the support of a coach, an ongoing dialogue to celebrate progress and learn from missteps may also be an essential safeguard against burnout. Organizations can support their staff and prevent burnout through coaching management approaches that encourage personal and team growth. Team coaching may also include opening up respectful lines of communication, building trust, and honoring the value each individual gives to the whole. Professionals in social impact and sustainability can be supported by coaches to develop the team structure, tools, and resources to support their success and mitigate burnout.