Sustainability leadership: The case of O2’s “Think Big”

When O2 launched its sustainability initiative in 2010, it attempted to connect up its 12000 employees to a range of stakeholders as the Think Big scheme

According to The Guardian the initiative, known as “think big”,was championed by O2’s CEO Ronan Dunne, Irish rugby fanatic, and advocate of fair auctioning of the G4 spectrum rights. Think big is the creative label for the notion that:

… by “starting small”, everyone can become motivated to have bigger ideas about people and the planet. Think big aims to create greener products and services, to make buildings more sustainable, lower the company’s environmental impact and help build the confidence of a million young people through a £5m social action programme investing in youth projects.

All employees are encouraged to make pledges to get involved, supported by a strong internal campaign (online, in stores, offices and call centres) and a dedicated website. From suggesting business and energy saving ideas to volunteering or reducing their travel impact, employees are encouraged to join a community of sustainable thinkers and the company says it tries to offer something for everyone, whatever their role.
Think big values are also built into personal development reviews and O2 rewards involvement through an award-winning peer-voted recognition scheme, known as Fanclub. People can get involved in activities such as one-to-one mentoring of young people, fronted by the National Youth Agency and other partners.

They can join the company’s own network, described as teams of activists, who are able to dedicate paid-time to exploring social enterprise ideas within and outside the business. Or staff can make a difference in their everyday work by, for example, finding ways to work together more efficiently, reducing travel and energy use or recycling

Sustainability strategy

O2 has set itself a strategic goal to be recognised for its sustainability policy. The think big initiative feeds from and enhances its product development innovations.

Creative leadership and the progress principle

The broad reach of the scheme, together with integrated nature fits well with the notions of creative leadership and the progress principle advocated by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer. Professor Amabile of Harvard Business School is a leading scholar in the field of creativity and intrinsic motivation. The progress principle champions the principle of small multiple wins as a means to a more creative and empowered corporate culture.

There is no Plan B

The high profile of the sustainability initiative is reminiscent of the Marks & Spencer approach to sustainability known as Plan A. This was also pioneered from the top, by its then CEO, the charismatic Sir Stuart Rose. It was described as plan A “because there is no alternative plan B”.

Independent monitoring

The O2 scheme is being independently monitored by sustainability experts, Forum for the Future.

Sustainability is catching on

Sustainability is no longer an optional extra for global organizations, according to sustainability consultants Seymourpowell. As well as in O2, sustainability projects have been identified in firms such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Akzo Nobel, eBay, BASF, PepsiCo, Tata Beverage Group, Sony Ericsson, SCA, Boots and the Technology Strategy Board

According to Dr Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at Seymourpowell

“In my 15 years in the field, sustainable business has changed beyond recognition – moving from a risk to an opportunity; and from compliance to a leadership issue. The old way of doing things – of reporting and monitoring, through supply chains, communication and PR simply won’t work anymore. Increasingly, sustainability will be about creativity, entrepreneurship and growth, placing it squarely in the hands of innovators and designers.”

Sustainability polarises opinion

Sustainability remains a topic that polarises opinion. Those who advocate it risk being designated visionaries or charlatans (or both). It is a risk that political leaders as well as corporate leaders are increasingly having to address.

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