Slaying the Naysayers

This week, I attended the 10-year progress check-in for the strategy of one of the world’s largest companies. At the time an incredibly unusual stance, this company aligned their business strategy with their sustainability strategy. They set audacious goals they had no idea how to hit, which several executives admitted to being “slightly terrifying.” They made commitments to business, production, and sourcing practices that had no precedent, nor any rational, known path to evolve from business as usual. With the CEO and Chief Sustainability Officer speaking from their home offices, they shared their successes over these ten years against the goals, which are incredible, inspiring and largely successful. They were candid about some disappointments and misses, which while few, are sobering nonetheless.

My favorite moment came during the Q&A when someone asked how they would know that they’ve been wildly successful in the next ten years. The CEO responded immediately, but not with a market share number, a growth percentage, a stock price or a customer or employee satisfaction score. He said it would be a Harvard Business School case that definitively proved that a strategy based on improving people’s lives, health and the planet was the absolute best business strategy and the way every business should be run. “We will have slayed the naysayers once and for all,” he said. Amen and hallelujah.

Whenever anyone does something innovative, new or different than established convention, the naysayers are everywhere. If John F Kennedy had set “rational” goals backed by known science and facts, we never would have landed on the moon in 1969. Many would suggest that if Elon Musk hadn’t set the big, hairy, audacious goal of living on Mars and started SpaceX, that the space travel industry would be a shell of what it is today. On a smaller scale, if I had listened only to the naysayers after explaining the idea of using technology to inspire positive behavior change, WeSpire wouldn’t exist. 

The naysayers have a role. I would argue that they force innovators to up their game. To dig deeper to prove impact and efficacy. To tell their story better. To focus more tightly. This company had to fend off a hostile takeover from a large naysayer in their market several years ago. It did force them to hone even more tightly in on which strategies were driving both business value and social and environmental value. Since then, their stock has increased by nearly 60% while other companies’ stock has fallen nearly 70%. Take that, naysayers.

But naysayers can be exhausting for innovators and confusing for those who are standing on the sidelines, unsure if they should adopt these new practices. In an effort to defend their entrenched way of doing things or beliefs, they can spread an extraordinary amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt that slows the pace of adoption. At some point, the results are either there, or they aren’t. But as soon as they are there, then the naysayers should get with the program, once and for all. 

Some naysaying, particularly tied to science, has become almost a cottage industry of truly odd bedfellows. From climate change deniers to anti-vaxxers to some groups protesting the lockdowns, it’s just not about the data or the results. The naysaying comes because of the absolute distrust of the institutions that produce the results, whether corporations or government, combined with a high amount of propaganda from those who have entrenched interests or alternative agendas. Ironically, the distrust even occurs when the results have been very good. People just don’t remember how bad the problem really was (vaccines) or if the strategy is working but came at a high cost (lockdown), then it was “an overreaction.” Ask any frontline ER doc in a major coastal city whether the lockdown has been an overreaction and you will draw tears (or well deserved punches).  

Leaders adopting sustainable business strategies sit in an interesting position facing naysayers of multiple types. Some will never believe the results and get with the program because it doesn’t serve their interests to do so. But there are a large number of very data driven business people who do trust the science, moving less boldly but watching the leaders for a sign that it’s safe to move even more boldly. I think we are tantalizingly close to slaying those naysayers and personally can’t wait for it to happen. 

Quote of the Week:  Naysayers have little power over us, unless we give it to them.

Arianna Huffington
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