Innovation & Design

Designing Sustainable Leadership


An unconventional B-school in Washington, with sustainability at the core of its curriculum, encourages students to search for creative solutions

David Smith came to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Washington ready for a change.

An engineer by training, Smith had worked as a geologist in the mining industry for 20 years before moving up to a managerial role at CH2M Hill, a mining company based in Englewood, Colo.

Working in the corporate communications department there, Smith discovered that a large part of the brand message concerned sustainable mining practices. And though the company was actively engaged with environmental concerns, he felt their approach emphasized sustainability as an after-the-fact mitigation tool, rather than as a central piece of the business model.

Sustainability as a Core Business Model

Smith wanted no less than to change the entire mining industry from within. So when a colleague in CH2M's sustainability division, who had served as an adjunct lecturer at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute the year before, recommended the school to Smith, he decided to enroll in a three-year MBA program.

At Bainbridge, all the programs, be they full-time MBAs or executive certificates, specialize in sustainable business. To Smith, the program afforded an opportunity "to combine my interest in sustainability with my interest in business, to try to make the industry itself more environmentally friendly."

"I went in expecting to learn mostly about sustainability and human issues, and [secondarily] about the nuts and bolts of finance and running a business," Smith explains.

Instead of teaching separate classes on business strategy and sustainability, professors at BGI taught that sustainability was a necessary piece of strategy. Every class project developing business models assumed sustainability as a goal from the outset, and every class on environmental ethics assumed that solutions would be both profitable and responsible.

"What I learned from BGI was strategic thinking, seeing how relationships and roles work in a company," recalls Smith. "BGI does a really terrific job of getting that across."

A Personal Path to Sustainability

BGI founder Gifford Pinchot and his teaching faculty emphasize that sustainability depends on self-knowledge. According to Pinchot, getting businesspeople to see sustainability as a strategy rather than a burden requires them to think outside the traditional boxes of business education. It takes a leap of creative faith.

In a module called Leadership & Personal Development, BGI students were encouraged to propose class projects that explored aspects of their personality, even when such projects took them far afield from traditional business questions. Smith, for example, did a class project exploring his own spirituality. "Personal dynamics play a huge role in business—and personal dynamics start with self-knowledge. The basis of being able to have good relationships with people in business is knowing how you operate yourself," Smith explains.

This human approach to business leadership plays a central role in BGI's approach to sustainability as a business strategy. The program's core segment, Social Entrepreneurship & Right Livelihood—mandatory for students in all BGI programs—taught Smith and his classmates to run problem-solving workshops called CreateSessions.

In a CreateSession, the lead student identifies a business problem and conducts ethnographic user research to present the problem to the class. The student then organizes activity sessions in which teams of classmates explore the problem's parameters to develop new solutions, plans, and prototypes. Smith's CreateSession asked students to explore mentorship, to identify the qualities of a good adviser.

Design Processes Are Key to Innovation

Smith concluded that "the best mentors wouldn't tell me what to do; they asked demanding questions of me." In a business context, Smith's project suggests leadership structures in which bosses encourage employees to set their own goals and targets, encouraging them to take risks that might lead to innovation.

"At its heart," says Smith, "BGI is really about innovation—ways to change business and ways for business to change the world." Though the school doesn't consider itself a design academy, Smith says design processes were key, especially in the CreateSessions. "You have to be in touch with yourself creatively to develop these ideas, to see things with a different twist."

Smith now hopes to transfer that creative twist back into the mining industry. Since graduating, he has been working as an independent consultant for the precious minerals mining industry in the western U.S. and Vancouver, B.C., where he works with exploration companies to develop models for sustainable mining practices.

Potential solutions are design projects, Smith says, because "The best opportunities for making mines sustainable arise before they are in use, when they are being designed." He adds that the vast majority of precious minerals mining has focused on sites outside of North America, so the domestic market for new mines remains wide open. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, breaking ground at exploration sites for metals mining within the U.S. increased 28% from 2005 to 2006.

Crucially, design thinking allows those interested to implement sustainability early in the game, as a central part of a business model, not a retroactive marketing campaign. "If you have the foresight to build sustainability into your operations from the outset," Smith explains, "it multiplies the effect. It's very hard to retrofit these things."

Maha Atal is an intern at BusinessWeek.

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