climate change and director responsibilities

When the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is no longer in dispute, it is unthinkable that there are directors of publicly listed companies who admit to be climate change deniers.  There is no longer any scope for deniers to cling to their ideological positions, even if encouraged by sceptics in Government, certain political donors and their sympathisers. See an earlier post on conservative ideology and climate change.

Some recent work by a special counsel at Minter Ellison, Sarah Barker, has highlighted the fact that climate change deniers who are company directors are likely to breach their duty of care.

Sarah has two decades experience on advising governance, disclosure and fiduciary duty issues and was recently acknowledged by the United Nations PRI for her recent work on directors duties and climate change.

As Chairman of Regnan, Australia’s leading governance advisory and engagement body, I am particularly interested in Sarah’s paper and its implications for corporate Australia. The abstract, quoted with permission, reads as follows:

“The science relating to anthropogenic climate change is no longer in credible dispute. With its physical and economic impacts increasingly observed, the attention of legal commentators has begun to broaden from responsibility for emissions mitigation to liability for climate change induced harms.

 At the same time, Courts are demanding higher standards of proactivity and engagement from corporate boards in order to satisfy their statutory directors’ duties.

This paper combines, and extends, those two areas of scholarship by examining whether common corporate governance approaches to climate change may contravene directors’ primary duties under Chapter 2D of the Corporations Act.

 It concludes that, even where directors’ subjective bona fides are not in question, passivity, reactivity or inactivity on climate change governance is increasingly likely to contravene the duty of care and diligence under section 180(1) of the Corporations Act, and increasingly unlikely to satisfy the ‘business judgment rule’ defence under section 180(2). This includes governance strategies that emanate from climate change denial, a failure to consider its impacts due to ignorance or unreflective assumption, paralysis caused by the inherent uncertainty of its magnitude and timing, or a default to a base set by regulators or industry peers. In addition, even considered decisions to prevail with ‘business as usual’ are increasingly unlikely to satisfy the duty (or the business judgment rule defence) – particularly if they are the product of a conventional methodology that fails to recognise the unprecedented challenges presented by an erratically changing climate. In addition, whilst unorthodox, it is reasonably arguable that a failure to actively consider the impacts of climate change may also breach the duty to act in good faith in the best interests of the corporation under section 181.

 Accordingly, directors who do not proactively respond to the commercial risks and opportunities of climate change, now, may be held to account under the Corporations Act if corporate value becomes impaired into the future”

 Maybe activist investors will start to demand  board change and directors who are climate change deniers will eventually be forced to step aside. A better outcome would be for them to acknowledge  that their own views and the overwhelming scientific evidence are at odds, and to further reflect on that Sarah’s paper may have implications for them.

asking powerful questions

asking powerful questions

Everything we know in the world has emerged through people’s curiosity. In a world where any answer seems to be a Google search away, we are losing the capacity to be curious and ask questions. In the realm of big analytics, where virtually any cause and effect can be identified, the biggest constraint is the ability to pose the right question. In life generally, and in the work place particularly, we seem to pay more attention to problem solving and analysis. We tend to have a short term focus – and the pace of life tends to stifle reflective conversations.

Going a step further, if we can lift from just asking questions to asking powerful questions, we invite curiosity and possibility, which can generate energy and forward momentum. To achieve this, the settings are as important as the questions. Vogt, Brown and Isaacs, in their important paper, “the art of powerful questions” make the observation that “authentic conversation is less likely to occur in a climate of fear, mistrust and hierarchical control”.

For many leaders, it can be a stretch to encourage diverse views, explore assumptions, suspend judgement and look for connections of ideas. If they can climb this mountain and be prepared to embrace the possibilities that may flow from the conversations, amazing transformation can take place.

Mark Strom, a colleague of mine in the 20I20 exchange leadership group, presented a brilliant TED talk on asking grounded questions. If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, I suggest you allocate 16 minutes of your life to watching the You Tube clip. Mark contends that while grounded questions generate stories and conversations from which change can occur and people can shine, many things work against this happening……such as preoccupation with spreadsheets, procedures and  strategy documents. Mark shares some powerful examples of the difference between abstract and grounded questions in his talk. He explains that a grounded question often comes from the side rather than front on.

Mark makes the point that logic works well on what cannot change, grounded questions work well on what can change. Questions like “what’s wrong?” and “how do we fix it?” tend to lead to focus on problems, whereas questions like, “why did you become a teacher?” take the shackles off, liberating people to generate stories that often lead to special insights.

Vogt and Strom both give guidance about how to ask grounded questions – there are certain rules about construction, scope and assumptions (such as the power of “why” above “which” and “who”), but both come back to the most important success factor – “stand back and look at the people who you are questioning and admire them”. Grounded and powerful questions are natural and not contrived. They come from empathy and a genuine desire to want to learn the answer. In a trusting environment, the art of powerful questioning can uncover, for people and organisations, a world of possibility and deep change.

Leaders with the courage and mindsets to undertake innovation at the enterprise level, are likely to also have the capacity to incorporate a culture of grounded questioning. These will be the leaders who give as much attention to developing powerful questions as they do to problem solving – and who steer strategy evolution that engages multiple voices and perspectives in networks of conversations. Such leaders are creating the conditions that will help to future proof their organisations.

innovation at the enterprise level

innovation at the enterprise level

An innovation is something original, new, and important that breaks into a market or society. Innovation is generally considered a process that brings together better outcomes from novel ideas to make an impact on. It is not invention, which is about the idea itself; nor is it improvement, which is doing the same thing better.

Innovation is essentially a learning process. Within organisations, it demands an understanding of why we do what we do, as a starting point to looking at things differently.

Why innovate?

Novel ideas from innovation have been the hallmark of the progress of mankind for centuries. Today, in a world characterised by a collapse in timeframes and rapid reconfigurations of business models, enterprises face a harsh ultimatum – innovate or die. The factors which cause business death are almost certainly not the ones that are being currently focused on, but they can be identified by a systematic innovation process.

Companies employing effective innovation practice drive six times more revenue from new products than companies which don’t. Apart from the differentiation benefits, competitive advantage and profits from new products, innovation reinforces brand, fosters continuous improvement and future proofs an enterprise. Innovative companies also typically attract and retain better people.

How to innovate?

Effective innovation requires leaders to create the right climate and for innovation processes to become embedded in every aspect of the organisation. It requires an innovation mindset within a culture that nurtures, guides and supports innovative thinking and practices. In fact innovation potential can only be sustained if the culture of the organisation allows it.

 While an innovation mindset fosters innovation throughout an enterprise, the best case studies of systematic innovation seem to involve fully involved and endorsed innovation teams from all levels of an organisation, incorporating inputs from customers, suppliers and external experts. Success comes from the ability to deal with the uncertainty of the future and not from an orientation through pre-established objectives or organised plans.

There are no silver bullets here, but success is most likely from a process which inspires vision, creates the right environment, stimulates ideas and then tests the ideas before implementation. Success is when we take those ideas from possibility to probability.

Handbrakes on innovation

Most of the constraints come from leaders who don’t understand innovation processes or who just pay lip service to it. Not only can leaders squash innovation but they can be overconfident in their ability to nurture it. Development Dimensions International measured, in 500 companies, how successful leaders fare at promoting innovation in four major areas: inspiring curiosity, challenging current perspectives, creating freedom and driving discipline;  and found a gap of 35% between leaders and employees perceptions of what was happening. So despite what managers think, many of their employees don’t believe that their leaders actually want to challenge the status quo or hear new ideas, less still champion these ideas to senior management. Sound familiar?

Nilofer Merchant compares many innovation efforts to an “air sandwich” – that is, the top tells the bottom what to do and all the stuff in the middle – the debates, trade-offs and necessary discussions – is missing. This air sandwich is the source of most strategic failure.  The change from a closed exclusive concept of who can participate, to an open and inclusive approach is essential for effective innovation.

Traditional methods of assessing financial viability are also one of the biggest barriers to innovation. It is only by having different KPIs that organizations can understand the different elements of risk and reward in innovation and how they relate to investment levels and financial viability. There needs to be a commitment to the long term view, which is mostly not the focus of standard metrics.

Further material

If you want to dig deeper, Scott Berkun suggests five great books on the subject. There is also a good EY report and a link to an overview of disruptive innovation below:

  • “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Peter Drucker
  • “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko
  • “Dear Theo” by Vincent van Gogh
  • “They all Laughed” by Ira Flatow
  • “Brain Rules” by John Medina
  • Innovating for Growth” EY report
  • The explainer on disruptive innovation HBR

                                                     “the power of imagination makes us infinite” John Muir

the shared leadership imperative

the shared leadership imperative

Brian Cook, the Geelong Football Club CEO – who has steered three premierships at Geelong and two at West Coast – was interviewed recently on Fox Sports. He was asked what the pre-requisites are for a good coach. His response was compelling – “the two most important elements are leadership and cultural development – the ability to achieve the desired culture in the club and to lead the eight assistant coaches in a way where they operate as an effective team. The technical and tactical elements come second”.  I reflected that the most successful leaders in my experience have also focused on creating team culture and team decision making processes as their primary objective. The vision and strategies in these organisations were generally defined by, agreed to, and lived by the team.

The concept of shared rather than authoritarian leadership has been an espoused “preferred state” in most modern organisations, but has often been derailed by leaders who have problems giving up control. If only they could see the irony that the former CEO of Levi Strauss, Robert Haas articulated – “the more you share leadership and responsibility, the more you multiply your own effectiveness through the effectiveness of others…..you have to accept the fact that decisions and recommendations may be different from what you would do alone…..different but possibly better. You have to be willing to take your own ego out of it”.

Why change? Traditional leadership styles are a carry-over from the evolution of the industrial era which created centralised systems and hierarchies to support those times. Ingrained for centuries, they remained accepted as the norm. Today, they are increasingly coming under pressure to change to modes that will support the new imperatives in business and society.

Getting a sniff of the need to change, there’ve been many well intentioned attempts to introduce shared leadership, only to see them despatched to the “too hard basket”. We’ve seen as many failures as successes, because it takes commitment and then relentless determination to establish the mindsets, processes and rules to make it work.

 I was lucky enough to work with an organisation in the late 90’s where three years of hard work created a powerful team environment. Staff and managers stepped up to wear the hat of their assigned role, as well as that of leader, often “taking one for the team” and seeing the organisation as a whole. It was underpinned by agreed goals, mutual respect and strong adherence to the team norms (like not tolerating territoriality, passivity or mediocrity). People who couldn’t comply were rejected by the team – or volunteered to leave. There was less “wheel spinning” and everyone felt valued and recognised. It reminds me very much of the team culture at the Sydney Swans over recent years.

If today’s leaders (be they in community organisations, family businesses, sporting clubs or large corporations), can’t see this irony, there are some powerful forces at work that will apply the brakes to centralist, heroic and authoritarian leadership styles. The digital world demands that we share. A former boss said once, “information gives power”. Today, sharing information gives power. So does sharing leadership and responsibility.

 Social media is also helping to redefine leadership. As Michael Fauscette writes, “people have new levels of empowerment because of their on line voice, and expect experiences from organisations that mimic those in their personal life….power and communication are networked, not hierarchical and one way”. Organisation cultures must therefore change to meet these new requirements – or people will move to places where cultures have already been transformed.

In a shared leadership team, each person fulfils a clear role and all members strive for a common, agreed goal. A true team provides the right environment for the pursuit of quality, customer service, productivity or whatever is agreed, in a changing environment. Intact teams also provide strong social and emotional rewards, including self-esteem and a sense of being valued. There’s great satisfaction in being part of a high performing team where critique, learning and personal development flourish.

When a true team culture is established with its norms and behavioural expectations (often around respect, listening and personal obligations to the team), it’s hard for leaders (or anyone else) to violate the culture. It’s also a hard place to want to stay if you’re unaligned. As we move from the old industrialised world business cultures to those of the knowledge economy, some of the different imperatives can be summarised as follows:

 OLD – Hierarchical model   NEW – Social business model
  • Managing
  • Hoarding information
  • Leaders are served
  • Conformity is rewarded
  • One way communication
  • Openness discouraged
  • Top down strategy
  •  Coaching
  • Sharing information
  • Leaders serve
  • Everyone has voice and influence
  • Networked communication
  • Transparency flourishes
  • Particpatory strategy/viison work

I’d like to hear your personal experiences and thoughts. Does change depend on having a leader who believes in shared leadership, or can organisational culture be changed by the people? Do staff really want shared leadership or do some have fear of the commitment and step up needed?

Image by Omar Eduardo

pain or gain from structural change?

pain or gain from structural change?

Fanned by the hurricane that is the digital world, creeping globalisation and undeniable climate change, mature economies are undergoing huge structural change. Christopher Rollyson argues that the major driver of change is actually people placing greater value on consumer experience.  They demand better choice, access, convenience and quality at a time when consumer power has never been stronger.

The pace of change is certainly accelerating, as is the noise from many affected by job losses in industries like manufacturing, retail and traditional media. There are plenty of ostriches playing the blame game – “It’s the carbon tax!” (even before its introduction) or, “it’s Fair Work Australia” or “it’s the exchange rate”. Conditioned by a legacy of handouts and bailouts, the complaints are also generally accompanied by calls for the government “to do something”.

Fortunately, there are also business leaders who see the change towards a knowledge economy as an opportunity rather than a problem. Peter Roberts’ recent piece in The Australian Financial Review highlights how enlightened companies are finding the way to adapt and benefit. He cites companies like GE, which has identified $30 billion of near term opportunities in Australia in areas like LNG and wind power. We don’t all have the deep pockets of GE, but there are other impressive examples of adaption to a changing world, such as the gradual transition of LJ Hooker from property developer to sustainability manager. My own experience suggests organisations that embrace environmental and sustainability challenges, tend to drive costs down and foster innovation more rapidly than those that choose to treat them as an imposition.

The knowledge economy isn’t the exclusive domain of high tech and big companies. In reality, the biggest changes will come from the application of innovation and knowledge in the low to medium technology sectors, which form the bulk of the economy. These sectors include food processing, transport, the hospitality industry, and service industries in general. They provide the possibility for intelligent customer-focused business solutions that will attract consumers like magnets.

Julian Cribb has written a compelling opinion piece called Australia in 2050. He paints a picture of the biggest economic driver being knowledge (including technology and advice) and thebiggest export sector climate adaptation, where we use our own natural climate volatility experience as an intellectual springboard for creating new industries. Opportunities will span food production, water management, construction of homes and workplaces, urban design and tropical medicine.

What can governments do? The most relevant policy responses are likely to be around supporting financial pressures borne by innovative firms, and re-focusing the role of Australia’s knowledge infrastructure, particularly universities and scientific institutions. There will also need to be a much greater commitment to R&D, in the way that China has committed to spend an incredible 2.2% of GDP annually ($320 billion) on R&D in the latest five year plan. Such responses are required to diminish the debilitating brain drain from Australia to places like Silicon Valley. We need to see the level of debate about our rapidly changing economy, migrate from whingeing and blame, to insight and possibility.

image by jason hoover

making the complicated simple

December 19, 2011  |  environment, knowledge, life, main blog, philosophy  |  2 Comments

After my wife read the first draft of this post about making things simple, she said, “you’re guilty as charged – you’ve written a complicated piece on simplicity!” She was right. Complicating things is what we tend to do. But here’s the good news. As information, the pace of change and choice grow quickly, we don’t need to roll over and accept that complexity must prevail.

Edward de Bono said, “Dealing with complexity is inefficient and an unnecessary waste of time, attention and mental energy. There is never any justification for things being complex when they could be simple”.

 I asked a friend who plays golf very well, what tuition books he reads. He replied, “a golf swing is simple mate, you just focus on the ball and hit it – constant analysis complicates it”. On reflection I thought that his comment was a poignant metaphor for life itself.

 Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple defines innovation and creativity. It’s true in technology (think Steve Jobs), art, photography, design and fashion. Coco Chanel said, “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance”. Leonardo da Vinci offered “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

 Perhaps the greatest challenge in removing complexity is in communicating simply – and this can be a real burden. Mark Twain made a telling comment “I apologise for the length of my letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. It’s not hard to think of examples in our own working lives where we’ve over cooked our written and spoken communication. A former boss of mine claimed that if you couldn’t put it on one page then you didn’t understand it. Something is simple or complex depending on the way we choose to describe it.

 It’s tough getting simplicity in workplaces, where making things appear complex tends to be an art form. Jargon, sounding important and impression management are often actually rewarded in organisations. For leaders who can see the value of a simpler, more inclusive approach concerted effort to de-complicate, achieves reduced costs and mistakes, and improved morale and return on investment. Making the complex clear always helps people work smarter – because it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s important and ignore what isn’t. Note however that Einstein said that “everything must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
In our personal lives we’ve become so materialistic and self-indulgent that the next new toy or experience isn’t special for long.  Accumulation of “things” has led to clutter in both our living space and inner space.  We’ve also tended to be more excessive with what we try and fit into our lives, what we consume and the way we obsessively protect our kids. It’s also easy to allow the struggle and strife of others to become part of us – which is something the Kinks say we should eliminate in their little known song, Complicated Life.

The old saying, “less is more” resonates with me. The fewer friends, possessions, and experiences we have, the more we appreciate and enjoy them. Simple living, which is about people being satisfied with what they need rather than what they want, is different from living in poverty – it’s a lifestyle choice. The choice might be around frugality, health, ecological footprint, stress or just increased quality time. The people I know who live this way are, without exception, the happiest. The art of having less but enjoying our lives more, involves a few simple changes in perspective, like understanding where our true values lie – and focusing on them.

What else can we do? We can try to minimize the impact of negative people in our lives as part of our search for simplicity and elegance. It doesn’t mean removing ourselves from criticism, but it does mean taking control of our environment. We can also escape from the “everyday” to get doses of perspective by experiencing wilderness, meditating, and volunteering, for example.

Simplifying our unnecessarily complicated lives can also extend to what we eat. I’m reminded of my mum’s sign in her library, “live simply so others may simply live”. There’s also a lot to be gained by being more like children – learning, appreciating what’s around us, being active, having fun and above all keeping things simple. What ideas do you have for making the complicated simple?

a youthful mindset

a youthful mindset

In the space of 24 hours recently I met a young person who seemed old and an older couple who seemed young. The 45 year old was living in the glory of his football days and the 85 year olds were enthusiastically seeking new things to challenge them. It made me think that a youthful mindset isn’t necessarily related to chronological age. Then I remembered Samuel Ullman’s brilliant poem on youth, read it again and felt the need to share.

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigour of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

 Youth means the temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.  This often exists in a man of sixty more than a boy of twenty.  Nobody grows old merely by a number of years.  We grow old by deserting our ideals.

 Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.  Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

 Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing childlike appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living.  In the centre of your heart and my heart here is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young.

 When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty”

 The insights are brilliant. This was Konosuke Matsushita’s favourite poem. The “god” of Japanese management and founder of Panasonic was a living example of a person who died happy at 95 with a curious mind. Ullman died at 84, still writing.

 We often joke that 60 is the new 50, 50 is the new 40, and so on. As much as youthfulness depends upon staying fit and strong, it also depends on what’s going on in our heads. If you want to feel old, convince yourself that your best days are behind you. It’s not uncommon for people who think like this to have an aversion to change and to find it difficult to face new challenges, like social media. People who turn that on its head and take a future orientation, tend to have an enthusiasm and energy for life beyond their years. It’s not always about age!

 I believe that a youthful mindset is a precursor to happiness, quality of life and longevity. Here are five things we can all do on that journey: 

  1. Get fit and stay strong, offsetting the 400gms of muscle we lose every year after 30
  2. Have a curious mind and a thirst for knowledge
  3. Look forward to things
  4. Vigorously pursue your ideals, rather than just accepting, or complaining about, a less than perfect world
  5. Take on new challenges – even if they’re a bit of a stretch
  6. Show gratitude for our lives and what we can give and achieve

penetrating the USA market

Sustainable penetration of the lucrative US market by Australian companies is uncommon. Although there may be diminished appetite for market entry by export, investment or full participation due to current exchange rates, the US is still the king of global markets. Many Australian corporates have tried, however not many have succeeded.

Much has been written about the way Yellowtail Wines created as much value organically as Fosters paid for Beringer by acquisition, and the Westfield shopping mall penetration is well known. The successful entry of the US market by listed Australian building materials company James Hardie, is another case study that offers some valuable insights to aspirants.

James Hardie initially entered the US market in 1990 with imported fibre cement roofing and it was apparent by the early 90’s that a prospective market for siding products existed. Siding is the term used for a product we might call weatherboard, and in the USA some of the engineered wood siding products were failing in the southern States. Savvy local operators led by the current Hardie CEO, Louis Gries, made the choice clear – “there is a big market opportunity here. You can have a skimming strategy or a penetration strategy, depending on price”. The right price for a penetration strategy demanded a lower cost base.

Even with the establishment of manufacturing capacity in California, the cost base, at $400 per thousand square feet, would only enable market skimming. It needed to be $200. There were those who thought the task impossible, but the Americans, particularly those from Chicago, are real “can do” people. We assembled a team of American engineers and Australian researchers, committed between 4 and 5% of sales to R&D (an amazing level for a building materials company) and 18 months later had cracked it – a volume market strategy for the biggest building materials market in the world.

What were the critical decisions made to ensure this success?

  • Having a low cost base enabled Hardiplank to be competitively priced for volume
  • Hardie committed from the outset to putting capacity into the market ahead of demand. That takes courage and commitment.
  • Hardie built plants around freight logistics to cover targeted consumer segments
  • A brilliant, hard-nosed sales force won the hearts and minds of the dealers in a classical two step distribution model (which later incorporated direct)
  • The company used customer preference to steer the ongoing R&D with winning new products hitting the mark every time.

James Hardie penetration of the US siding market became so successful that it surprised the industry. In fact, the market was sufficiently attractive that competitors entered – some of the biggest players in the world including Saint Gobain and Temple Inland. They each spent the best part of $100 million on a single plant, only to retreat after some years.

James Hardie was able to grow market share and see off competitors not only because it had driven the cost base down, but because we had also moved way up the experience curve in the process of understanding how to produce at a lower cost. We also empowered the local operation, which had a deep understanding of the market and drove distribution decisions around freight logistics. It was also about a focused corporate and operational mindset, people determined to win and who understood that there were no quick fixes or short cuts. As the architect of the strategy and CEO who started the journey, Keith Barton, used to say….”get the conditions right and the outcomes will flow”.

Today Hardie (as it is known in the USA) owns the market. The Hardie brand has become the generic for fibre cement and the US exceeds 80% of total company revenue. Products now include siding in its many variations and backer board.

The USA new housing market will take quite a while to pick up again, but when it does, watch those fibre cement machines start pumping in the ten USA plants, strategically positioned around the USA

inspiration and longevity from gardening

inspiration and longevity from gardening

August 23, 2011  |  environment, knowledge, life, main blog, motivation  |  4 Comments

I’ve just come in from an exhilarating day in the garden – made myself a vegetable plot from redgum railway sleepers – and feel motivated to post something about gardening.

Creating and/or maintaining a garden, whatever the size, nurtures the body, mind and spirit. For many people, their garden is their sanctuary, for others like me, gardening can inspire and energise.

Gardens can make us happy, heal us when sad or depressed, and help us understand profound truths about the relationship between ourselves and nature. As we journey through the seasons, the pattern of birth, bloom and decay sheds light on the mystery of being human” Albert Camus

The life and death cycle in the garden is an analogy with life itself. It provides a sense of wonder at what nature can provide. For children, seeing a pea in a pod, a bird feasting on a flower, or tasting a home grown tomato, adds a whole new dimension to our consumer and supermarket driven society. For adults, a garden can be a total escape from the things that bother us, such as technological intrusion, or unfulfilling lives…..and there’s nothing like whipping out the back to find a fresh herb to add flavour to any dish.

Eileen Campbell writes in her delightful little book, “The Joy of Gardening”, “We’ve somehow become divorced from the natural world and seem to be on a headlong course to destroy the planet one way or another. Gardening isn’t a panacea for the problems of the world, but maybe by creating our own little bit of paradise, we can make a difference. Gardening nurtures qualities like patience, optimism, trust, discipline and attention – which can ultimately help us live a fulfilled and happy life

 I was lucky to have been brought up with soil under my finger nails, enjoying the products of an extensive home vegie garden, the taste of home grown fruit and learning to appreciate the beauty of native plants. For those to whom gardening is new, don’t be intimidated by the prospect. It’s highly accessible and possible for everyone to become involved – from single room apartment balconies to sweeping arboretums.  There’s even a trend towards green walls and roofs in residential and commercial buildings. They give a sense of tranquillity, connect the inside with the outside and help the planet by turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.

 The community garden  concept is also becoming popular around the world. Community gardens bring people together, generate fresh food and flowers, and operate on a shared work load principle. If there’s nothing in your local area, why not approach the council or park management authority to kick one off?

So, to the unconverted I suggest you get involved. While great gardens show a sense of flair and artistry, there are no rules – it’s simply a matter of getting on the court and playing. The web is full of guidance on vegetable gardening , growing herbs and even a helpful site which collates 50 blogs covering many types of gardens.

Sowing seed, watching life emerge, weeding, pruning, harvesting and clearing, give a rhythm to life and transcend time. It’s also therapeutic for the body and mind. Active gardening contributes to longevity (my unproven hypothesis) – through fresh air, sunshine, peace of mind and exercise. As the garden you have created and developed becomes part of you, then you become part of it.

Gardens also provide the chance to learn things (I’m still trying to learn how to make compost like my mother in law!) We’re increasingly being challenged to understand concepts like water use efficiency and growing plants without artificial chemicals.  You’ll find that experienced gardeners love to share their secrets with aspiring gardeners – tips like planting a passionfruit vine above a bullock’s liver, or keeping your orchids in part shade. Many of them have also grown to understand the garden as an ecosystem and have learnt about integrated pest management and the importance of soil condition. It’s a great conversation opportunity across generations.

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul. Show me your garden and I’ll tell you what you are” Alfred Austin

australia's corporate blindspots

australia’s corporate blindspots

Inspiring case studies about Asian market penetration, leadership in technology and global excellence in sustainability programs, show what Australia is capable of. However, across the ASX 200 and beyond, we tend to lag in some game-changing areas. While it’s risky to generalise, I believe that corporate Australia tends to underestimate three important strategic themes:

  1. Fully understanding the impact of China on a number of fronts – as it shifts from a low cost manufacturing base to the biggest consumer market in the world; as it moves from a user of technology to a creator of technology (2.2% of GDP in the next five year plan on R&D); and as the need for primary resources (minerals and food) continues to grow. Geoff Raby, retiring Australian Ambassador to China, said that the one thing that surprised him most about his time in Beijing, was how few CEO’s and Chairs of Australian companies paid him a visit.
  2. Treating environmental and sustainable challenges as opportunities rather than impositions. There are many ASX 200 companies with lengthy annual sustainability reports, however few demonstrate genuine belief that environmental responsibility and growing profitability are not mutually exclusive. We desperately need a mindset shift from compliance and complaint, to realism and possibility.
  3. Recognising the value of leading rather than lagging in embracing digital technology-based innovation. Although there is variation in responsiveness within the sectors, media and retail are two sectors which have been caught asleep at the wheel. Is this an age related phenomenon – as older people are in positions of responsibility? How many senior executives and directors have you heard pass off Twitter as being frivolous, rather than seeing its potential as a primary source of focused information? Yet I know many savvy over 60’s behaving like digital natives. No, it’s not age per se; it’s about mindset, openness to change and awareness.

In a global context, Australia business has performed relatively well in the last decade, supported by resources based economic growth, a sound banking and legal system and excellent corporate governance. After the GFC, some observers have suggested that this same good governance has trended towards risk aversion and consequent inertia.

As the world is turned on its head by the digital revolution, major shifts in the global economic balance, and the need to resuscitate an environmentally struggling planet, there is no room for board and executive risk aversion in these areas. While being in the “late adopter” or “laggard” group may not have threatened company survival in the past, today’s environment calls for a positioning as “early adopters” at worst, and “innovators” at best.

Peter Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital, goes even further in suggesting that any board of directors or group of managers who are not moving fast to understand and harness changes that technology is delivering – social media, cloud computing, mobile devices and data – is abrogating its responsibility to deliver leadership and governance.

Over the next ten to twenty years, the future of Australia will be fall into three main areas – primary resources (minerals and food); the service economy, and the knowledge economy. Julian Cribb believes that by 2050, our economy could be 70% knowledge based. In China last month I saw evidence of the emerging demand for our capabilities in disciplines like urban planning, agricultural science, energy, information technology, architecture, engineering, water management and medicine. We have a long way to go to understand the scope and shape of that knowledge economy, let alone create it. The building blocks exist, but success will depend on the ability of corporate (and political) Australia to gain insights and show leadership in the three areas that we underestimate.

What can we do? CEO’s need to get on the court and play – go to China and understand the market and people. Get immersed in the new technology – as ABC CEO Mark Scott does, personally sending 140 relevant tweets a week. He knows the medium and can talk the language because he has become involved. Shift from a mindset of lobbying Government about regulation, to one of understanding which way the wind is blowing and putting up the spinnaker. Get rid of dead wood on boards – people who are reluctant to change and enjoy peer group support for their scepticism. Much focus is given to gender diversity on boards – we need some mindset diversity as well! It’s not too late but we need to act quickly.