Ralph Thurm recommends Aron Cramer + Zachary Karabell’s ‘Sustainable Excellence’


Reading Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell’s book ‘Sustainable Excellence – The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World’ started with a big smile on my face. I first opened the book in a restaurant in Dubai’s Old Town, right opposite of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, early January 2011. I often start a book by reading the acknowledgments first, and found there that Cramer and Karabell started the idea of the book in the same place two years earlier; what a nice coincidence. Looking at Burj Khalifa, one can easily think of ‘the sky’s the limit’, and the book breathes that notion as well, as the title clearly indicates. So I was eager to learn about excellence in sustainability. My first question indeed was if there actually WAS something like excellence in sustainability already? How would it be defined and how and against what would it be measured?

Cramer and Karabell give directions TOWARDS what could be sustainable excellence, namely: 1) Think big: Create business strategies that meet big global challenges, 2) Use sustainability to drive innovation, 3) Set the right incentives internally and externally, 4) Embrace the transparent world – and collaborate, and 5) Make consumers your partners. They pick up on some of the global megatrends and simply state that if a business takes these into account and can come up with ‘resilient strategies’ in the so-called VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex ambitious), structural changes in the economy could be anticipated and new waves of ideas could be adopted before the competition does; Cramer and Karabell call this ‘chasing the disruption’. Examples that follow come from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nike, Ford, ANZ, TNT. No surprise, the usual suspects that all had their ‘disruption’ some time ago and since then properly integrated and innovated sustainability.

More necessary ingredients towards sustainable excellence are discussed in the next chapters of the book: the need for leadership (Starbucks, Siemens, GE, Aramex, Unilever, Walmart, FedEx), looking through the value chains to unlock solutions (H&M, Ikea, P&G, Levi’s, Walmart, Nike), renewed or new products that serve a societal purpose – also in he light of the more concerned and active consumer (Clorox, Interface Ford, Shai Agassi’s Better Place), the need to be authentic and practicing what you preach (Marks and Spencer, Nestlé, Unilever, Nike, Starbucks, Natura, ITC), and adapting the governance to open up and using unfamiliar voices as a new form of risk management and open up to a enable new ways of partnerships (mentioning examples of confrontative ‘disruptions’ that made space for collaborative approaches up to co-creation partnerships).

In between those mentioned chapters are a couple of ‘interruptions’, in which Cramer and Karabell describe the developments towards a higher degree of sustainability in a couple of industries, namely the financial sector, the energy sector (with an intersection on the role of IT towards grids and smarter cities) and the commodities sector (oil & gas, mining & metals). Furthermore there is a chapter on the new regional champions from emerging markets, especially China, India, Brazil and how those have created a fundamentally new global architecture given the structural changes caused by the economic downtown, rising resource constraints and the shift of financial and political capital. It is a bit unfortunate that these chapters are intermingled with the more internally focused chapters, as a reader I felt a bit confused and wondered what the reason for that sequence was.

The book ends with a trial. Cramer and Karabell predict ten companies that they think will shape the (sustainability excellence) world in 2020. These are Walmart, Better Place, Dupont, Schneider, Google, Autodesk, Grupo ABC, Iberdrola, ICICI, Tsing Capital. The reasoning is understandable, but many others could have also been chosen, and while this remained an interesting experiment, the value added is somewhat limited.

Overall, Cramer and Karabell have written a proper state-of-the art description of why it is crucial for companies to act and integrate sustainability into strategy creation, implementation and delivery. They describe how leading businesses move to higher levels of professionalism and instigate change and cross-fertilization, internally and externally. For those who look for good arguments why a proactive take is necessary, the book is  a great collection of rationale and examples. For the more advanced experts the book is just ‘reassuring’.

Some caveats remain: the book – given Aron’s BSR affiliation and center of activity – is sometimes too much US-centric, and many BSR member companies repeatedly come back in the different chapters. This also leads to a notion that leadership towards sustainable excellence remains a matter of a few enlightened leaders, not a good omen given the challenge in front of business and the broad uptake it needs.

In the end the book title promises a bit too much with regard to what sustainable excellence really IS. It is a good collection of examples on how to move TOWARDS sustainable leadership and why that is a must-do, a definition and measurable performance of sustainable excellence is missing, and in my view also remains impossible (my plea for Zero Impact Growth Strategies could be a way out, see my earlier blogs this year). I also missed some more analysis with regard to needed systemic enablers (towards sustainable capitalism, taxation and world trade regimes, the need for a broader accounting that internalises external effects, and the need for integrated reporting) that would also help to define sustainable excellence and are as necessary as the other ingredients the authors cover. I guess I was hoping for more of that since I know and have heard Aron speak on those topics many times, a brilliant analytic and also a great inspirator. Room for another book then?