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Daggerwing Group’s Michelle Mahony discusses operationalizing sustainability strategy, purpose-washing, and equipping teams to be ambitious in the face of the greatest challenges of our time.
Companies don’t change; people do. This is a core philosophy that drives the
work of Daggerwing Group — a change-management
consultancy that focuses on one of the hardest parts of change and business
Sustainable Brands® caught up with Managing Partner & President Michelle
Mahony to explore embedding and
operationalizing sustainability strategy, purpose-washing, and giving people the
tools to be ambitious in the face of the greatest challenges of our time.
Michelle Mahony: The biggest thing that has changed is the realization by
organizations around the world that having a solid strategy for navigating
change is crucial for transformation efforts to succeed. We focus on the human
side of change: the beliefs, mindsets and new ways of working that need to
accompany any kind of change — especially in a world that has never been so
messy or complex.
We know that 75 percent of change efforts fail. And it’s important to remember
that just because you build it, it doesn’t mean people are going to come. You
can have the best strategies, processes and tools in the world for your
transformation; but change only really happens when the cost of not changing is
greater than the cost of changing at the individual level. People need to be
supported through the process and feel part of the change — so that it’s not
just happening to them but with them.
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This is particularly true for the complex change that is required for
organizations to meet their sustainability goals, as this shift requires a whole
new paradigm for how businesses need to operate and how people make decisions
every day. And we are finding that organizations as a whole have done a lot of
great thinking about their goals and what they need to do in this space. Now,
they are shifting a lot of their thinking to how they need to change to reach
very ambitious goals.
MM: Yes. A business has no sense of consciousness or self-awareness. A
business is not expected to make any kind of moral judgments; it only exists to
grow and be profitable. But if that growth runs completely unchecked, it can
cause terrible impacts for people and the environment — the results of which we
are living with on a planetary scale.
It is only the people inside a business who can create a moral and business
imperative and think about growth in a new way that is healthier for the planet,
for people and for the business itself.
MM: We need growth and learning mindsets. However, we don’t have time to
learn everything and then act. We must learn and act as we go in order to meet
the challenges — experimentation, failing fast, learning from mistakes and
continuing to evolve.
Part of the problem we have right now is psychological. There is a feeling of,
‘Oh, I give up; this is too overwhelming. We’re not going to make it. Humanity
is doomed.’ And although there is a lot of really awful news around this hitting
us every day, we cannot afford to settle into doomed complacency. So, part of
what we need to do is instill hope and galvanize people into action.
MM: Traditionally, sustainability efforts are solely managed by the Chief
Sustainability Officer and their teams. They implement some policies and there
is a core group of experts and strategists to make things happen. But
sustainability is not an initiative; it is a way of doing business.
Sustainability needs to be owned by everyone to garner the energy that is needed
to make it real. When efforts exist in a silo, people often use language that
nobody else understands in the organization because it’s incredibly complex or
super scientific. So, making it a story that everybody can tap into is the
It’s about instilling sustainability into leadership decision-making in the
actions that we take every day. We see lots of companies kicking the can down
the road, saying, ‘We can’t get to it this year, but we’ll get to it next year.’
That’s going to fail. We can’t keep doing that. But what you can do is make it
more manageable, prioritize and plan.
reporting that they fail to get anything done. What’s your take on it?
MM: ESG as a concept is something that needed to happen. But I think the
idea of ESG as one entity needs to go away; because they’re very separate issues
requiring their own strategies and measurements for the E, the S and the G —
sticking them into one index doesn’t make sense. But we absolutely do need
metrics and accountability; and my hope is that ESG reporting will continue to
in a way that makes sense and creates greater accountability in each of these
MM: Companies are generally pretty good at changing their processes. The
challenge is bringing people together so that they understand what is changing,
what a company is trying to accomplish, why and their role in it.
There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach for every organization. Depending
on the goals set, different stakeholders within an organization will be affected
differently, at different times, and will have different roles. So, you need an
overall change plan that encompasses the big story; and then you need to dive
deep with priority groups, and ask: ‘How are you going to be impacting these
goals? What is your role?’ That’s the kind of detail that you need to get into
as you operationalize, because each group can differentially move the needle
MM: Different companies have different appetites for how much they’re going
to take on. It does feel overwhelming; but the good news is the “burning
has never been hotter. I mean, it is there; it is daunting — but if you don’t
step into this work, you’re going to fall behind as a business. So, everyone
needs to get a little bit braver and really do what they can — not only does the
world demand this, but your business does also.
MM: No, it’s not enough. The definition of integrity is when what you’re
saying and what you’re doing match each other. When you have a low ‘do,’ nobody
trusts you. When you have a low ‘say,’ you are open to interpretation.
Your purpose, mission and/or vision are great; it gives everyone the true north
and the language to talk about what it is you’re trying to do. But without the
‘do’ to back it up, it’s just empty fluff.
MM: Well, I’ve always had a personal interest in environmentalism. I come
from Washington State, which is a cradle for that thinking originally.
We can all individually take actions to be “greener” and do our composting and
recycling, and that’s great; but unless we fundamentally change systems in the
world — which corporations, governments and coalitions have the power and
responsibility to do — individual change is not going to be enough.
It’s hard when you look at the news and see the impact climate change is having
on our planet. But we have no choice but to be hopeful — otherwise, we lay down
in a puddle and die, which is just not an option I want to consider.
I try not to be a Pollyanna about this stuff and be realistic; but we have to
find ways to maintain that optimism. And I do believe in our ability to solve
great challenges when we have to, when our very existence is at stake.
Published Nov 13, 2023 10am EST / 7am PST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.