Transcript: Leadership for a Circular Economy with Wayne Visser
SEE THE SHOW NOTES AND LISTEN AT: Leadership for a Circular Economy with Wayne Visser | Getting in the Loop Podcast
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Katie Whalen [00:00:36] Hi I'm Katie Whalen and join me. Each week I talk with experts around the globe about circular economy. You'll find out what's being done to make it a reality and if it can really solve the problems it promises it's time for getting in the loop.
Katie Whalen [00:00:57] Hi and welcome to Getting in the Loop. I'm Katie. And today we're getting in the loop with Professor Dr. Wayne Visser who is the director of the Sustainable Transformation Lab at Antwerp Management School. Dr. Visser is a globally recognized ‘pracademic’ on a sustainable business the author of 29 books and the presenter of closing the loop the world's first feature length documentary film on the circular economy. He currently serves as professor of integrated value at Antwerp Management School. He is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Director of Kaleidoscope Futures and founder of CSR International. This episode was requested by multiple listeners. So thank you very much for the suggestion. I think you all will find this episode very enjoyable. As you will hear much of Wayne's work has focused on leadership for sustainability which I think is very relevant for those of you trying to implement circular change. In this episode you will learn about the four qualities of leaders and how you as an individual can act as an agent for change including the four different types of change agents and how to tell which one you are.
Katie Whalen [00:02:13] I'm very excited to have you on the podcast. Wayne you are the director of the Sustainable Transformation Lab in Antwerp. Could you start by just sharing a bit about your work there.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:02:26] Sure. I'm a professor here and integrated value and what we do is try to work with partners on the journey of sustainable transformation meaning that we we're not so interested in incremental change we don't think that will get us where we need to go fast enough or far enough. And so we we work with them in terms of research in terms of facilitating the process of change for them. And of course in teaching as well the next generation.
Katie Whalen [00:03:02] Could you give an example of a project that you've worked on or are currently working on that's really highlighting sustainable transformation because as you say incremental incremental change won't get us get us there fast enough. But what what kinds of what kind of work is being done in this in this area.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:03:22] Well we have different ways we do this. For example we work with Johnson and Johnson and we're taking them through a seven step process where we've started by. Getting them to understand the major trends that are shaping the industry the health care industry and we're just going into a phase now of stakeholder consultation and then we'll work through different steps around their values around the strategic goals the metrics that they use. Innovation of products and engagement with policy. So that's typically the process that we will use but we also engage in other ways.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:04:08] We also have a corporate leadership group on circular economy and another one on well-being economy where the companies collaborate with each other to take some public action once a year to try to push the agenda forward.
Katie Whalen [00:04:23] And so the different ways that we try to achieve sustainable transformation and this the circular economy one I'm interested in maybe you could tell a little bit more are you is that just that you know Antwerp now I'm gonna get your here you're you're at the enterprise management school I'm going to say School of Management.
Katie Whalen [00:04:47] Is this something that's just within the Antwerp management school or is this more of a greater consortium the corporate leadership group on the circular economy is a group of global companies in fact. So we have BASF we have the port of Antwerp which although it's located in Antwerp is a global company. We have a unique core which is the world's largest recycler of precious metals. We have the Brussels airport. So it really is a mix of companies. And what we're doing in fact is shaping up a Circular Economy pledge where they will commit themselves to align with the EU Circular Economy Package. But to be even more ambitious than the legislation as a way to try to get some action on secular economy.
Katie Whalen [00:05:55] Yeah. OK. Interesting. Very interesting. I'm curious to see how this develops.
Katie Whalen [00:06:01] Do you have some sort of web site or anywhere that we can follow along in this journey or any sort of end date.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:06:13] We don't. But as I said once a year there will be a public action so towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year there will be media releases and press and you know it should be it should be evident that something is happening because once we once we agree the pledge among the companies we're working with which is a small group we will invite other companies to also sign up to the pledge as a sign of their commitment to the circular economy.
Katie Whalen [00:06:54] We'll have to keep a lookout for that. So I will talk a little bit about some of the other work that you've been doing because I was taking a look at what you have. Where you've been you've been doing and you're using a lot of mediums to link academic research to broader society. So I I looked on your YouTube account and you have a podcast and a daily mailing list and you also made a film which maybe some of the listeners. Have actually watched. It's the world's first feature length documentary on the circular economy called closing the loop.
Katie Whalen [00:07:35] I will link to it in the show notes so that the listeners can check it out. But. Could you just tell us how did you come to making a film.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:07:44] Sure I mean this was partly out of frustration at seeing so many documentaries out there which were all about the problem and it was just fortunate that my son is a filmmaker and studied film and had a connection to a director in the US an Emmy Award winning director and I just pitched a few ideas to him. His name is is Graham Sheldon and it ended up being that the circular economy was one that we thought we could we could make a good documentary about. And then it was up to me really I was knocking on doors of companies that I thought were doing progressive things in different parts of the world to to close the loop. And we ended up featuring a number of those companies from from Europe. We filmed in Germany the Netherlands the U.K. and Italy and then also in Latin America. We filmed in Ecuador and in Africa we filmed in South Africa. So it ended up being a really nice international documentary and focused on the solutions companies that are actually doing things to bring about the circular economy.
Katie Whalen [00:09:16] I'm going to I want to touch on the solutions and sort of what you found in a minute but could you tell us a little bit what has the response been to the film and to viewers around the world.
[00:09:30] It's been fantastic. We specifically took the approach that we didn't want to go with a distributor where we may or may not get on to a particular channel on a particular night on a particular day. And so rather we we went the route of making it almost open access for the first year after we launched it was is a very affordable video and now it's actually free on on YouTube. So we wanted to get it out to as many people as possible. And the approach was to just invite people to do their own screenings. And we've had literally hundreds of screenings now all around the world. We had one week in fact where we collaborated with the circular economy club and they ended up having screenings in dozens of countries just in that week as well. All around the world. So it's it's been very gratifying to see that it's it's got out there and people find it inspiring and tend to share it with others.
Katie Whalen [00:10:40] Yeah I remember that when I didn't have the chance to catch it during the circular economy weak screenings but I saw a lot of that on social media and I caught it at a conference in Sweden actually. So I still have one eye and thinking it back to you two in the film you highlight these new solutions that you say the focus is on the solutions. And if I'm remembering there are some some. Interviews that you do with interface. So that's one of the one of the examples and we had that the grandson of Ray Anderson John Lanier on the podcast earlier this year I believe it's episode number 17 and one of the things that he was talking a little bit about on the podcast was about leadership and how to motivate people and really drive change in organizations. So I understand that you focus on purposeful leadership as one of your particular areas of research. Could you share a little bit about yeah how how do you think we should go about making more of these examples and kind of what are some key takeaways for my listeners who are looking to drive sort of change in their organizations.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:12:05] Yeah. Well interface was indeed one of the companies they've been an inspiring pioneer for decades ever since Ray Anderson set them on Mission Zero but of course they're also going through an evolution now to what's next which is the climate take back strategy that they now have. And and we found that kind of leadership has continued to be Andre Anderson.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:12:32] That's the most wonderful thing to discover and we found it also in all of the other companies that we we featured whether it was no Vermont which does biodegradable plastics including a coffee capsule full Lavazza for example or entrepreneurs that we found in in South Africa collecting and recycling tires or in Latin America and Ecuador turning turning tetra packs in to into new products. And I think if I link that to the research that I've done on purpose from leadership or leadership for sustainability what what I find is that there are really four things that leaders do extremely well. The One is that they're good at articulating blue skies meaning that they really can capture a vision and get people to believe in that. The second thing is that they adopt big goals meaning ambitious targets that again are very inspiring. The third is that they take baby steps meaning that they show that change is possible. It's not a fantasy or a dream. And the fourth is that they identify a burning platform and that is all about the urgency for change. They link into an issue or a risk that people can really relate to as a as a motivation for change. So the four Bs really blue skies big goals baby steps and burning platforms tends to be what we see among these purposeful leaders.
Katie Whalen [00:14:28] Wow that that's a very catchy way of remembering it. I was curious. For these four key characteristics when you look at sort of leadership is this mainly for people who are the heads of these corporations or do you also see it can be people who are heads of departments and people who are not really visioning the organization. Yeah. Is it Is it possible sort of to have change in these types of leaders within the organization and not at a managerial liver level.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:15:12] Yes it is in fact this is one of the findings coming out of research that is ongoing right now. We're doing research on leadership for sustainability for the European petrochemicals association and we're interviewing leaders from not only chemical industry companies but from other companies that are taking a lead on sustainability and one of the findings for sure is that you get sustainability champions who may be at any level in the organization with any title. They didn't have to have a mandate specific formal role in sustainability and in fact that's to be encouraged. We need this bottom up sometimes called distributed or shared leadership on sustainability. We also need the experts. We also need those that really have studied this and that perhaps play either a scientific role or a sort of a strategic facilitation role within companies. But you know if it's all top down it doesn't really work. Commitment from the top helps certainly if your CEO your board really is behind this. As we saw with Unilever and Paul Polman for example it makes a lot of difference.
Katie Whalen [00:16:43] But it's not the only things I think that's that's the question that's on a lot of people's minds or at least it's on my mind because I was giving some workshops recently to people who are not at the board level of an organization but they were kind of talking about well we can't really do that. That might steer to enact change. What if our board is not really in line with this. So yeah I would love to learn a little bit more about individuals as change agents. And if you have any advice because I'm sure there's many people who would be really interested in that.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:17:21] OK. If we look a little bit more I wanted to mention on unsustainability leadership and the research that we're doing. Firstly at the organizational level we are finding that the purpose for leaders have different sets of characteristics. And you know it's things like having a. Emotional intelligence being able to be innovative creative having systems thinking approach. There are very various characteristics. We highlighted in fact in the first blog and so some of these are. Are characteristics that need an enabling environment to flourish. So that's very important in an organization that is supportive to allow these characteristics to emerge and some are more competencies. Sustainability literacy for example where you could imagine teaching people or training people so that's the one part. The other part I just wanted to mention was we're also looking at what are the benefits to the organization of sustainability leadership. And we find that there are many that get mentioned both in the research in the literature as well as by the leaders that we're interviewing and they range from people being more motivated more committed. Feeling more engaged in the workplace. It does seem like the the war for talent recruitment and retention is really key now especially among the younger generation that this is something that they're interested in and we find that as well in teaching young people they're more engaged. They have higher expectations in fact of companies and they want to see that they can make an impact through their work. On the theme of making an impact then. Any advice for four young change makers. Well young and old here I could mention some other research that I've done in fact for my my PHC. I looked at what motivates people at a rather deep existential level to be engaged on sustainability topics and what I've found is that there are four different types of change agents. And it's quite helpful to think about which one you might be and the four types are experts. So you get some people who really are content lead. They tend to like to work more on their own quite task and project focused. But it's all about the quality of the content and we really need people like that to to make change happen. The second type of facilitators and these are people who enjoy working in groups and they have people skills. It's about facilitating a process of change. And again we need them in any change process. The third type are catalysts. These are people who like to work at a strategic level. Their skills are more around political influence by which I mean party politics I simply mean that it's a lot about persuading others whether those that means you're managing director or your peers or your friends. It's a much more strategic role where you're trying to change the direction of a whole organization and then the last type of the activists and these are the people who are far more grassroots. They want to be part of a movement. They have a skill of asking difficult or disruptive questions and they're the ones also that struggle the most to fit into large organizations. And from a change management point of view we need all four types and what we often see is that people get into roles that contradict their natural type. Even though we all have a little bit of all four of those types we do gravitate towards one depending on what makes us satisfied or what makes us frustrated. So we should try to understand what our natural type is but then work in teams or in groups where we have a balance between form and then where most most likely to have a successful revolution.
Katie Whalen [00:22:20] And so you say that we sort of gravitate towards certain types. Is it possible to change that type or is it something that sort of now you find that we don't really that one person is an expert and they kind of have this expert tendency for their entire professional career.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:22:39] No in fact it changes often. It changes over the course of a life or a career. There are certain triggers you know it could be that you have a family for example that often changes people's priorities could be that you have a job change or a promotion and you start working in a different way and you find that you're really good at that or you really enjoy that. So it can change it doesn't have to end it and it's in no particular order either. It is a dynamic model in other words and you need to just be sensitive with the gravitation is right now and possibly you know whether you're moving in a different direction maybe you're. You're operating as an expert right now and you're quite enjoying that but you you're feeling a tug towards being more of a facilitator that's also good to know.
Katie Whalen [00:23:33] I have to. For me it's not so clear cut which one exactly where I would place myself right now.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:23:40] But the way to test it is by what makes you frustrated. So if you look at an expert they get very frustrated if their quality work that they've done is not appreciated by others or if they've designed something and people just don't respect the design they don't follow the rules. For example if a system has been designed or they don't engage with the project in the way that it was set up to be engaged with. So it's that kind of frustration. The facilitator gets very frustrated when people in the team let them down. You know everybody's pulling their weight and then there's always one that feels they don't have to make an effort or they free ride and they let everybody down as a catalyst gets frustrated when the people at the top. We just don't get it. You know after you've made all the persuasive arguments they seem to put two blocks in your way. So whether it's red tape or bureaucracy or just a lack of a lack of insight from the leadership. Somehow you know all of your business case arguments are just not not flying. So that's a frustration and then the activist gets frustrated when he or she just sees people talking about things instead of doing things. People believing that this is not urgent or that it doesn't affect them when really they should be out making a difference right now if necessary. Being on the streets. But there are lots of ways to be an activist. The key point is it's about urgency and action. And when people are not taking it seriously or thinking that this is a problem for the future but not for now then it's very frustrating. So that gives some clues to people as to what type they may be. I've written a lot about this as well. In fact there's a book called Making a difference but there are also lots of summary articles. I think I did one for the Guardian called finding you in a sustainability superhero. It's the most accessible one.
Katie Whalen [00:25:52] Yeah. Okay. I think they might have come across this before actually because I was doing some workshops with them designers and we were trying to do this theme. You know the individual is Change. Change agents. But I'm definitely gonna have to take a look because I want to. Yeah I want to find my inner sustainable superhero. I would be curious to take a look at the findings of this research. Maybe. There was at a paper or website or any sort of. Or do you talk about it in your podcast.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:26:26] I will be presenting it at the annual meeting later this month. The initial findings. There is already a blog on the network management school website with the interim findings and there will be a second blog and then there will be a report which will be public as well. So probably look out on on and what management schools feeds or on the European petrochemicals association feeds.
Katie Whalen [00:27:01] OK. Thank you for sharing that. I will link. I will take a look and also a link to that in the show now so that listeners can take a look because I have a feeling we're going to have a lot of interest around that. So I realize that we're a little bit on a time constraint today.
Katie Whalen [00:27:18] So I want to make sure that you are able to get to the conference that you're going to. Otherwise I'm sure we could be here all day because I find the work that you're doing so fascinating and really needed. I wanted to ask before we go one of the final questions that I ask all of the interview guests and probably the listeners are used to hearing this by now but it's about this board game that I created. About circular economy. So I'm really into games as tools for engaging people and learning about circular economy and systems thinking.
Katie Whalen [00:27:53] And so I created a physical board game called In The Loop where players are a manufacturing company and they have to collect the materials needed to make their product but it's not as straightforward because there's different events in the game and they change the market conditions. So these events are often inspired by real world events so they can be and they can be positive or negative. And what I like to do is ask the guests if they could create an event for this game so something that would maybe disrupt this game what would it be. And guests often link it to sort of a vision that they have for the future in terms of sustainable transformation or circular economy. So Wayne do you have an idea of kind of what this what for in an event.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:28:48] Yes that's. I mean firstly it's wonderful that you you're tackling the subject using gamification. I think that's a lot of the ways that education happens. Now we're working with another Circular Economy game called Blue connection with. We're offering that to our students to to play collaboratively actually with companies who also put in teams in terms of a disruption. I think the the biggest disruption that that could come in would be a global carbon price. If if we in a very short space of time get a carbon price that is meaningful. And when I talk to both the scientists and the most progressive companies we meaning a price that might get up to something like 100 dollars per tonne of carbon already there are companies like Solar a large chemical company that that uses an internal price of 70 euros per tonne then I think that would that would disrupt many many supply chains many businesses that will suddenly find that throwing things away is more costly getting things from new raw materials is less feasible. And it would be a stimulus for the circular economy.
Katie Whalen [00:30:29] Yes definitely it would definitely be an incentive for closing the loop and the connection. I've also I've I've played it's quite fascinating. Yeah it's definitely a bit more financially focused than I had been in the league. So is it to wrap this up. Where can listeners go to learn more about you and the topics that we discussed.
Dr. Wayne Visser [00:30:55] Well like you say I'm quite active on various channels on social media. I have a Web site where a lot of my writing and and links to audio visual material podcasts and so on is available. To be honest I find that LinkedIn is the most engaging platform right now for for my work. So I tend to be very active there and it's where I also interact. But there's a Facebook page as well and and a Twitter account at Wayne Visser. All of these are fine as well as Instagram. So wherever people find me that's I'm happy to to have them engaged.
Katie Whalen [00:31:59] Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode for show notes and links go to our website at www.gettinginthelooppodcast.com. And while you're there subscribe to our mailing list to have new episodes delivered to your inbox every Monday. See you next week!
About the Show
Getting In the Loop is a weekly podcast dedicated to exploring how to transform to a more circular society. Join host Katie Whalen as she examines the challenges facing our current resource use and discovers alternatives to the ‘take, make, dispose’ way of doing things. Each week she interviews circular economy experts about what they’re doing and learning. Together we'll uncover what circular economy means in practice and find out what's being done to keep our resources in a loop rather than sent to waste.