Ashley George, a chemist by training, spent 18 years working on IT and innovation at the pharma company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). In that role, he oversaw the company’s annual Healthcare Innovation Award, which gave $1 million every year to innovations in health care that had the potential to save the lives of one million children in developing countries.
“Through this experience, I saw the true power of open innovation,” says George. “We awarded innovators who had the passion to try to tackle these enormous challenges, but lacked the knowledge to execute their ideas to their full potential. Our role at GSK was to bring our business acumen to the table to help these innovators scale their ideas. The innovators could focus on their content and ideas. We focused on the process and operations to make them a reality.”
After leaving GSK, George started the nonprofit Tech for Good, applying his experience in open innovation to sustainability and climate change issues informed by the United Nations Strategic Development Goals (SDGs). In collaboration with the innovation management platform Planbox, Tech for Good sets up public-facing sustainability challenges focused on themes like tidal power, re-greening Africa, and reducing energy use.
George and his team at Tech for Good have found three key traits that sustainability leaders need to be effective and successful.
1. The Ability to Work Broadly Across All the SDGs
In business, there’s often a focus on deep expertise in a singular area. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are celebrated and promoted. Sustainability work goes beyond this way of thinking. Because of the complexity of sustainability work and its multifaceted nature, sustainability leaders need expertise that is both deep and wide across many areas of business. Science, policy, governance, operations, storytelling, marketing, partnerships, compliance, legal, and financial expertise can all be a part of sustainability work at various stages.
Sustainability is about building on the shoulders of giants, as Newton so eloquently stated. You can’t be a prophet in your own land.
“Sustainability is about building on the shoulders of giants, as Newton so eloquently stated,” says George. “You can’t be a prophet in your own land. To really be successful in sustainability, you’ve got to work across all the SDGs. There are 17 of them and that’s a big ask, but it’s what’s needed. None of these SDGs work in isolation. They work together, and so we have to work together as well to address them all.” The goals include combatting climate change, protecting ecosystems on land and on water, and ending poverty and hunger.
2. The Humility to Co-Create and the Vision to Unite Teams
While collaborating with experts in these areas is essential and necessary, a sustainability leader must know them all well enough to be able to create the grand vision of a sustainability practice with measurable and meaningful goals; understand the intricate details within each area; and translate between the many teams involved in the work. To gain the necessary level of expertise, sustainability leaders must have the humility to ask questions of their partners and colleagues to truly understand how each team can and will contribute to the overall goals.
It takes a lot of humility to say you don’t understand how something works, and to ask an expert to explain it to you so that it becomes a part of your knowledge base.
“It takes a lot of humility to say you don’t understand how something works, and to ask an expert to explain it to you so that it becomes a part of your knowledge base,” said George. “At Tech for Good, we showcase the power of having a repository of people, ideas, and projects business leaders can turn to inspiration, guidance, and support.”
3. The Willingness to Constantly Learn, Improve, and Share
Sustainability leaders must be committed to constant learning and continuous improvement. It is a heavy lift to think through how sustainability projects play a role across all 17 SDGs. Companies have to acknowledge and honor how complicated and complex this work is, and how much broad collaboration across the organization, and with external partners and stakeholders, it requires.
How a Tech for Good Challenge Works
Tech for Good recognizes that companies want to play a role in championing change, but it’s not always easy to pull the time and resources away from commercial activities and begin to leverage commercial power to solve the planet’s biggest challenges.
This is where Tech For Good operates. They bring their expertise to the table to help companies develop a commercially-aligned corporate social responsibility (CSR) challenge, bring together global minds to solve it, and manage the whole process end-to-end.
“At Tech for Good, we’re a sounding board for ideas,” said George. “As a mission-driven nonprofit with deep integrity, we create a safe space for our partners to ask questions, ask for help, and ask for connections to generate ideas that they can put into action to build a more sustainable company and world.”