John’s now at Presidio in San Francisco, considered by environmentalists to offer the best MBA in the world for its MBA in sustainable management. In a recent article Green Prophet has written for the Huffington Post, we awarded it the top of the Top 5 Green MBA’s in the world.
Here’s John’s story on his journey to sustainability (and what he’s learning at Presidio). He’s also provided a partial reading list (for you to steal):
“Once you understand it,” a classmate told me, “it’s like a switch has flipped.” He’s right: you won’t be able to think about anything the way you did before. It’s the foundation of everything we need to do in sustainability and moving to clean energy. The “it” is systems thinking. My own journey to grasp it continues through my MBA program in sustainable management, at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.
Getting the MBA wasn’t my original ambition. Working in IT as a team leader and project manager, I’d enjoyed working at small start-ups and large public companies. But I yearned for something closer to my evolving interests, inspired by the development of clean tech and alternative energy in the Bay Area.
Then I discovered Presidio. Here was a program that defined its mission around sustainability, on how to operate a business for more than short-term gains. This resonated with me deeply, and I hoped this program would better enable a transition to the sustainability sector. I started in January 2010.
As befits an MBA program, our curriculum covers business fundamentals: accounting, marketing, operations, economics and finance. But these are all suffused with the perspectives of systems thinking and sustainability. We’re learning how profitability and responsibility can be mutually reinforcing, with several key texts to point the way.
Early on we read what’s become my touchstone: “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows.
Coming from IT, the notion of systems wasn’t new to me (components working together to produce some outcome). But Meadow’s description was illuminating. Systems are everywhere, she explains. Any system contains stocks (a collection of something) and flows (the movement of things within the system). A system can self-organize and adapt if it’s functioning well. If improvement is the goal, it’s essential to think about the inter-relationships of those components and finding points of leverage.
The classic analogy of a bathtub—with a faucet (input) and drain (output) governing the water level (stock)—gives you the insight to understand, for example, why greenhouse gases will continue to accumulate even if we slow down the rate of production. The existing stock (of GHG) is not “draining” fast enough, especially if we destroy the drains (forests).
From a business perspective, you need to think about your processes as systems – and as subsystems with larger ones. This leads, quite elegantly, to thinking of businesses as operating within ecosystems: economic, social, and environmental. And thus to see the whole, the connections and the impacts.
Seeing the interconnection of business and natural resources set the stage for “Natural Capitalism,“ co-authored by our charismatic professor, L. Hunter Lovins.
In our business designs, she writes, we need to add natural capital to the conventional types of capital. In so doing, we are led to consider how we use it, disperse it, deplete it, and—ideally—restore it. The context of nature is essential: if we use it beyond its capacity to perpetually provide, we reach “overshoot” (as Meadows called it).
We can look to natural cycles for examples we can mimic: to efficiently produce a certain output, creating no waste and making only that which can be reused or will contribute to restoration.
Keeping nature in mind, where are we now? In deep trouble, as Lester Brown discusses in “Plan B”. We face looming crises with water availability, environmental degradation, and the interplay of these with poverty, hunger, and even security. But he does not dwell in pessimism and instead outlines a path to sustainability: energy efficiency, moving to renewables and tackling social challenges. Even current technology for solar and wind, he contends, can meet our (restrained) energy needs—so imagine how improved solutions could hasten that transition.
Now we have the thinking, the process tools and the technology to take us down this path. But in the midst of recession-fueled rage and old-school business thinking, can we get there?
Only if we bring others on this journey—which means forging connections based on shared purpose, not just dire warnings. Our communications coursework encouraged us to listen effectively, address underlying needs and then reframe issues to reach common ground. Too often our public discourse seems focused on reinforcing, not resolving conflict. Because our ambitions require more than just enlightened corporate colleagues to achieve, listening and leading in broader communities is essential.
The great reward of this program—with the mindshare of systems thinking—is the regularity with which my old assumptions are disrupted, as I learn how much fundamental change is needed to get the planet healthy again.
This semester, in Operations, we’re talking about industrial ecology, not just assembly lines. In Macroeconomics, we’re considering if our conventional obsession with GDP addresses what’s really important . And in Leadership, we’re considering the assertions that leaders are made, not born, and that the essential task is not merely “execution” but to manage change—mindful of our underlying purpose.
Does that all sound squishy for b-school? Maybe at first glance, but it’s what will work for companies in it for the long haul: looking at systems for impacts and influences, working with stakeholders and not just shareholders, and managing products and services even after they leave the factory or office.
It’s the only way we’ll have the future we want. I’m loving the journey to get there.
John Lehnert is a consultant for Expansion Media, a PR and SEO firm focused solely on cleantech companies, has served as an IT team leader and project manager for over a decade. In 2010, he started an MBA program in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He has worked at dot-com start-ups and in the IT departments of health care, telecommunications and biotech companies, all in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also helped establish a corporate “green team.” An avid traveler, he has visited 7 continents and 36 countries and recently volunteered at a cloud forest reserve in South America.
More good reading on sustainability:
Friedman’s Hot Flat and Crowded (A review on Green Prophet)
McKibben’s “Deep Economy” (A review on Green Prophet)
Werbach’s Strategy for Sustainability (A review on Green Prophet)