European Sustainability Academy (ESA)
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Sustainable Business and Corporate Responsibility (CSR) International Centre
Drapanos, GR-730 08 Chania, Crete, Greece
ESA: Researcher and Cranfield Associate Sharon Jackson about the importance of learning from the Covid 19 crisis
Ask the expert podcast series - Listen or read the full interview
How is ‘noticing’ and ‘sense making’ a critical leadership attribute when it comes to environmental and business sustainability? In this episode of Ask the Expert we speak to author, researcher and Cranfield Associate Sharon Jackson about the importance of learning from the Covid 19 crisis to ensure lessons are learnt.
Listen now: 23 mins
Cranfield Executive Development · Ask The Expert: Sharon Jackson - Critical leadership attributes for sustainability
About the Expert
Sharon Jackson, founder and CEO of European Sustainability Academy in Crete, is an Associate Faculty at Cranfield School of Management. She has developed ground-breaking ‘Corporate Responsibility Leadership’ programmes for directors and senior managers which are delivered in wilderness and mountainous places of natural beauty in Europe, Australia and China. Sharon teaches business managers and directors how to combine fundamental business good practice and wealth creation with corporate responsibility as a core facet of global sustainability. Her programmes are designed to stimulate innovative and profitable business through aligning values based leadership with organisational sense making.
CC: Hello and welcome to Cranfield podcast series, Ask the Expert. My name is Chris Coghlan, executive client director in the School of Management. In today's episode, I'm really excited to be chatting to author, public speaker and Cranfield associate, Sharon Jackson. Sharon's expertise focusses around sensemaking in the context of sustainability. Hi, Sharon. Great. speak to you today. How are you doing?
SJ: Hi, Chris. Good afternoon. I'm fine. Nice to be with you.
CC: Whereabouts in the world are you today?
SJ: I’m actually in sunny Bedfordshire today.
CC: Lovely, perfect. To introduce yourself, could you tell us a bit more about your work, please?
SJ: Yes, sure. So, a little bit of background. I've come from a 15-year role in executive directorship roles, board roles in the global electronics and electrical components industry. But in 2000, I pivoted to become an executive education teacher, trainer, speaker, lecturer and researcher with a focus on the knowledge, skills or behaviours necessary for leading sustainable organisations. And that's taken me to teaching roles across the UK, Australia, China, India and the USA. And then more recently, in 2011, I invested nearly 1 million euros of my own money to build the European Sustainability Academy in Crete. And I did that at a time when Greece was in the middle of an absolute crippling economic crisis.
CC: Wow, what made you decide to do that?
SJ: Well, actually, I should be in Crete now. So, I'm not, because of the COVID-19 situation, waiting to get back, but why? Well why is actually in my story of my background. So I left an industry I’d done very well in for 15 years, the electronics industry because I noticed what was happening around the world for us to be able to have components in our mobile phones, etc. and the kind of environmental degradation and problems back then were too much for me to notice, and not act upon. So, I left the industry and went into full time teaching. Then, I found myself teaching all around the world, as I said. So, there I was in Australia, speaking with the Australian Institute of Company Directors, wonderful people in fantastic, stunning places, with multiple swimming pools and a casino in one of the places we were teaching. All my thousands of air miles racking up while I was teaching around the world, and I had another noticing moment, I noticed how incongruent I was to be teaching about sustainability leading sustainability and doing all those other things with flying, and actually teaching in buildings that just were not congruent with the message I was trying to get over. So, in 2009, I started considering building my own education centre. Actually during this time, I was really lucky to share platforms with Ray Anderson, the late Ray Anderson, sadly, the founder and CEO of Interface Flor, who really led the way as an industrialist, noticing the pollution problems of the planet in his own industry, which is carpet tiling. A very, very famous case study. And he just inspired me, Chris so much. His attitude was, he as an industrialist had created the environmental problems and sustainability problems we have today, and he wanted to be part of the solution. One step at a time he said. One, river at a time, one problem at a time. He inspired me so much. I, in noticing what I was doing, wanted to act, made me want to create a sense of education that was congruent with the messaging from people like Ray and the ideas that I had developed within the electronics industry and my teaching around the world. So that pretty much is why I built ESA, the European Sustainability Academy in Crete. And I chose Crete, because it's three or four hours distance from the UK, from other parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa. So, business leaders, executives can come to my training centre with a minimum amount of flight and long-haul travel. And I myself have completely cut my long-haul air flights, my travel since my kind of epiphany of realising, noticing all that incongruence in my messaging. So that's why I built ESA and then at the same time, gosh, this was an interesting time, I just I just started to do some research, academic research, at Cranfield into this noticing thing, this sensemaking thing that I had come into my life and it really made me change my direction. And in fact, Ray Anderson discusses a mid-course correction, which I actually have followed myself. So, I wanted to understand about what was going on. So, I did a master's degree and then later PhD qualification, research with Cranfield to understand sensemaking and because of my long time in senior roles in the electronics industry, I'm so lucky Chris, to get access across the whole organisations of Sony and Panasonic corporations. So, I was interested in finding out how they were dealing with getting their intentions for sustainable business, their policies, enacted right across the organisations. And I could go right to the boards, interviewing the CEO’s, COO’s, Managing Directors of all the different divisions, and the operational managers and to find out how their communications were helping to embed their intentions of sustainability. What I found was disconnects, massive disconnects, in what the board thought they were saying to the operation managers are the operation managers thought they were hearing. I found that absolutely fascinating. And that, ever since, has been the basis of the teaching that I deliver ESA and elsewhere.
CC: So, this idea of disconnects and sensemaking it sounds interesting. I'd love to explore that further with you. And I suppose to help the understanding, could you give us some more examples of disconnects that you have found over the years?
SJ: And of course, the biggest disconnect now is you know, with COVID now, you know, jumping on us in the way that it has, and the alarm bells, the massive alarm bells that we haven't noticed. How could we not notice some of the huge massive alarm bells? We've just pressed snooze. You know that the Gates Foundation just last October talked about the potential of pandemic. And Bill Gates himself gave a TED talk some years before. We just didn't notice. And we disconnected our sensemaking and just carried on as normal. And of course, the same is true of climate change. We've completely ignored the warnings. So, when I was down in Australia, there was plenty of warnings that drought was coming to that part of the world. And look what's happened. Terrible bushfires across Australia that we've all seen. So, in terms of the actual research, I'm curious why, yeah, why is this happening? So, all the talk of sustainable development goals, you know, environmental, social and governance recording, all those reports are given lip service Chris, and in a way that reporting helps to block the sensemaking and helps to keep the disconnect going. Because we believe we're taking action. Because we're writing a report, we believe we're reducing our flying. Of course, we're not. I physically have stopped long haul flights. And it's hard to do. It's hard to make those decisions. It's hard to enact. But once you notice something important, what is the disconnect? So, in terms of the actual theory behind this, Karl Weick is the organisational theorist who put sensemaking and mindfulness into organisations. He wrote a very famous book Sensemaking in Organisations back in the 80’s. And when I started my research with Cranfield, when I read one of his seminal works, which is upsetting, I must say, when I read that it took the American Medical Society 25 years to acknowledge and accept that little children could be harmed by their own parents. 25 years Chris, with all the evidence, physical evidence, all the anecdotal information. 25 years to actually accept that battered child syndrome could happen. I was horrified by that, because these are good people. These aren't bad people. They are not trying to ignore something so awful like that. So, what got in the way? So Weick’s theory is that we look at everything going on around in the world. And we basically collect cues that we notice. And those cues that we notice, go towards our actions, the actions that we take. But at this point, there's a very subconscious, really important moment, where we deselect the cues that are too dangerous for us, too overwhelming for us. We deselect them. And we don't even know we're doing it. So, this is the sensemaking process. So, I've learned now, how to make my sense conscientiously and consciously. Hopefully I'm noticing signs, and then deciding what to do about it. And when we see conscious sensemaking organisations, these are the organisations that really are taking the intention into genuine action. So, VUCA world, in Executive Education we're talking about all the time, but you know, it's lip service, we've been talking about it, but not really noticing what a VUCA world really is, and how we need to prepare ourselves. And COVID-19 has really shown that up. It's shown up some really good leadership and some very bad leadership. It's shown up some really bad behaviour and some good behaviour and there's no doubt about it, that organisation's and people will be judged from here on in on how they are behaving right now. So, in reality of taking that theory into practicality and what we do as leading organisations and communities. The famous story of Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP in 2010, with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil slick. Tony famously made that comment that he really wanted to just get on with his life. Now, that was 10 years ago, catastrophic. And scientists just last week are predicting that there will be another oil disaster anytime soon now. How on earth could that happen? How could we possibly not have learned from that terrible experience 10 years ago? In a similar story, I'm very was very pleased that my academic research was quoted in a published study last year, examining the leadership failures in the Brazilian Vale copper mine collapse just last year, last February, one year ago, catastrophe last year. And it was about the sense making leaders and that disconnect that helped that happen. And actually, when you look back, there were 50 dam collapses of a similar type over a really short period of time. What is the sensemaking process that isn't clicking in to say that we have to notice these big alarm bells and do things differently? And I was really inspired Chris, by the CEO of Unilever, Alan Jope, just a couple of weeks ago. He was part of a UN Global Compact online webinar with several thousand people logged in. And he said, although COVID-19 will get worse before it gets better, climate change is still the number one threat for Unilever. I was very inspired by that. He talked about enhanced leadership's being necessary, and alignment of team leadership as a priority after COVID-19. Now, we say after COVID-19 there, isn't the post COVID-19. It's here. The genie is out of the bottle on that one. And we must really notice that and be alarmed by that, it's here. And also, with the whole climate change problems, if we don't start addressing those alarm bells, that's going to bring even more similar kind of pandemics and problems that we're experiencing now. So, I hope that puts into context, the kind of theory and how it matters in practice.
CC: I'm really interested about how people can use this time to look around and notice and reflect and think about how they're going to move forward, especially those that are senior leaders, that have the opportunity to make a difference within their organisations. The effect that their organisations have on the environment around them, whether it's people, it might be their customers it might be the wider environment. How can these senior leaders start to notice, how can they start to make some changes that can that can help our planet?
SJ: This is it isn't it; it's putting it all into action. So, the first thing is to realize that this noticing and sensemaking thing goes on. We all do it, all the time, and I can recommend later some links to different papers, even my own papers that some people might like to read to help them understand that. So, once we notice what's going on, the first thing then is to notice is our own sensemaking disconnects. So, for me, it was so obvious, here I am in Australia, talking about saving the planet and reducing carbon. That doesn't work. So, you know, in the UK, before all COVID problems came about, the UK government was putting the UK as a leader in zero carbon economy, but then going to Australia to the start discuss some arrangements to buy beef and sheep and lambs from Australia. Those don't work, that does not work, it is not sense making and is non-sense, in fact. So, the first thing is to start noticing and then we become more adapted to seeing our own disconnects. And of course, we can ask the people. So, with the work I did with Panasonic and Sony, I was able to get them all in the same room. And it was almost like they're speaking different languages, sometimes when the disconnects and sensemaking, sensegiving weren't aligned. And in fact, you know, Alan Jope talks about the aligning of the team and understanding communications. So, in a way, some of the skills Chris, that our leaders have already been developing and learning are the same. They're not changed. You just have to do them better. That's for sure. So, the lessons from where we are now with the COVID scenario is really, I think we've realised how minimalistic and how non resilient, we are in organisations and sometimes in ourselves as leaders. So that is something to notice and learn from now, how can we become more resilient? I mentioned that I built ESA in Greece during the terrible crisis. I have never had a more important and meaningful lasting lesson in adaptation and personal resilience, than building this Training Centre at a time of economic crisis. And I grew immensely as a leader in every single way, I was pushed way beyond my capabilities and my boundaries. So, in fact, what happens now, when directors come to the ESA training academy, it's really interesting what they talk about in terms of the business training that we deliver, they frequently talk about how they feel there. They talk about what they are noticing. They talk about being reconnected with people and the natural environment. And they talk about noticing the cleanness and the healthy aspects of that natural environment in a way that they hadn't before. We also have stargazing nights. That could because there's almost no light pollution in Crete. And one chap said to me, ‘oh my goodness, we've lost the sky where I come from, and we didn't even realise’. Something that is really interesting now with the COVID virus is that we're getting our night sky back. Our streams are becoming cleaner, the birdsong is brighter and sharper. And people, don't forget that directors of boards are people first and foremost, we don't go to Mars at the weekend. We all live here on this beautiful planet when we leave the office. So, this everybody is now noticing different things, how to bring that noticing back into the organisation will be really important. People will need leadership like they've never needed it before. And they need good, compassionate human flexible leaders, who understand the whole story, not just a small part of it. Whether it's flexible working, whether it's reduced travel and not encouraging executives to fly all around the world. It's more Zoom programmes, a whole number of new processes will have to be incorporated into daily life in organisations. And fundamentally getting serious about carbon. Getting serious about climate change. Really being sure what climate change is and how each individual person can do something, anything within their sphere of influence, to reduce the driving impacts of climate change across the planet. Which, if we don't do that climate change will be far more painful than anything we are experiencing now, with COVID-19.
CC: One of the things I'm interested in is about how people when they go back to, you know, maybe they've been working away from the office or that their situation has changed, or maybe they've been on furlough or whatever it is, when they when they return to see their colleagues and look at what's happened over the last weeks, months or whatever it may be, is how they think about how they're going to do things differently. And what you've explained to me about this makes me feel that the noticing, that noticing, is the key first step to making that those changes.
SJ: Yes, not everyone is lucky enough to come to an olive grove in Crete with crystal clear skies at night. But we can recreate all of those sensemaking stimulating environments elsewhere. So, first thing is probably discussion. I think it'd be fantastic to have these discussions on a different level. When everyone's coming back to the office. How do you feel? How do you feel? How was it? How was it for you? What's different about you? Let's have that sharing experience in whatever way suits the organisation. But again, there are actual processes for triggering sensemaking awareness. And again, I can happily give you some links for people to read some quite easy to read material on that. I think what's important to us as human beings has very often been overlooked in the busyness of doing business. I certainly know when executives come to our retreats in Crete, they say, oh, my goodness, I've actually got some time to think. I've got some time to be creative in my thinking and even time to notice and notice other people. So, I think giving that space for that, again, that return that's really important. That return back to the workplace and looking at the bigger picture, what matters, what's the bigger picture around all this? And I think people have really reconnected with their emotions around community, family, it’s really stirring us up this whole period. It's a really emotional time. You know, when I clap at eight o'clock for the NHS, I feel very emotional about it in a way that I didn't think I would particularly, but I do. And I think we're all there. So, capturing that now, while it's so fresh and special, and wanting to save the cleaner streams, the bird song, the fact that the Himalayas can be seen from parts of India now and couldn’t before. Noticing how important that is and trying to preserve it. And I wonder if I may give a final lesson from Greece, because that's where I've chosen to build my teaching Academy. Greece is in the news now for good reasons, because it's been seen as a leader in cracking down on COVID-19 very, very quickly. There have been no deaths as far as I know, in Crete. And there's been like a handful 10 cases in total. Everyone's really heralding the new leadership as fantastic for Greece. And it's true, they have done a fantastic job, because proceeding that Greece had terrible leadership, and that's why the country nearly became bankrupt, but must not be complacent. So, noticing the whole story, is also really important. Greece is likely to come out of the lockdown earlier than the other European countries. It’s likely to recover some of its tourism, and that's fantastic. But at the same time, Greece is burning coal. It's just opening a new fossil fuel pipeline in the North part of Greece. And last year in Crete we had the most awful storms that took out seven bridges over a weekend. People's livelihoods gone. Every year the sea is rising. We have to notice that too. So, to do a great leadership job in COVID-19, recovered tourism is worthless if the islands are getting flooded, and the olive crops are failing, which they are, because of weather change. You've got to look at the whole picture. And the final point I would say on that, and definitely back into the organisation's, what we've learned through COVID-19 is cooperation, collaboration, and entrepreneurial spirit. Flexibility early on.
CC: The thing that I've heard from you, Sharon, is around with noticing we can find opportunities to make a difference and it's been absolutely fascinating to listen to you and hear how your research is in action, and how important it is for us all to play our part. Wishing you all the best, and I hope you are able to get back to Crete sooner rather than later.
SJ: I hope so, I’m missing it very much. Thank you, Chris. It's been a pleasure.
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