by John Elkington
via CSRwire

You know the feeling. The elevator doors are closing behind you – and you are suddenly alone with someone you have long wanted to meet and influence. How to connect? I have often been encouraged to develop a 20-second elevator pitch, but have always refused. My counter-argument is that if busy people insist on getting all their knowledge in 20-second sound-bites, they are unlikely to be open to the sort of deep conversations that the sustainability agenda requires.

Leadership_Businessman in AuditoriumBut, if pressed, I will say that I am grit in the corporate oyster which, if it doesn’t get spat out immediately, can become the nucleus around which business wisdom can form, like a pearl. One executive described the result as “constructive discomfort.”

Looking back, many senior executives I have worked with have been opened up to a wider world by a personal, painful, unexpected experience.  Whether they were hit by activist campaigns, market disruptions or hurricanes, these companies and their leaders were forced to engage a different reality.

Motivating Business Leaders To Go Beyond

All of this ran through my mind as I was waiting to speak at a leadership conference at the Swiss business school, IMD, an event co-hosted by the World Environment Center and the drug giant Novartis. As I listened to executives from companies like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Chiquita, Danone, Nestle and General Electric, it struck me that the need for epiphanies is now less urgent than it once was.  Today a growing number of leaders get to the same point through cold, hard business logic.

Sitting in the comfortable conference center, I kept hearing stories of leaders – and intrapreneurs – who had pushed themselves (and others) beyond their comfort zones.  Then, on the train to Geneva airport, I read a Fast Company blog which reminded that we really do need to keep pushing leaders well beyond their comfort zones – and helping them do likewise with those they lead and otherwise engage.

Learning Journeys Spark Creative Solutions

Written by Riley Gibson, CEO of social innovation company Napkin Labs, the blog looks at the key role of discomfort in evolving creative solutions. Gibson defines ‘creativity’ as “the ability to solve problems in an unexpected or surprising way.”  Creative solutions, he argues, come when we force our minds out of their comfort zones, challenging our assumptions.

So how do we do this for powerful people? It usually isn’t possible to conjure up a hurricane in an elevator. Instead, some imaginative companies now take senior executives on learning journeys. Done well, experiential learning can have a dramatic impact on the way we see the world.

Alternatively, once in that elevator, don’t do a sales pitch – ask that senior person a question that catches their attention. A question that will unfurl slowly in their brains, like a chrysanthemum in a teapot.

What Greenpeace used to call a ‘mind-bomb’, a simple idea that you hear almost without thinking, but which then opens the windows of your mind to a totally different world.  Not a simple task, clearly, but one we must all get much better at.

From Mind-bombs To Solutions: Ray Anderson & Wal-Mart’s Lee Scott

When I sent in a first draft of this blog, the Editors came back with: Can you give examples of ‘mind-bombs’ or experiential learning journeys? And preferably ones with a personal angle? Well yes, indeed.

Think of Ray Anderson reading Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce. Just another book, you might imagine, but the impact on Anderson, he used to say, was akin to having a spear driven through his chest.

Or think of Lee Scott, as CEO of Wal-Mart when Hurricane Katrina hit. A big hurricane, but surely a hurricane is a hurricane is a hurricane? Not in this case. Scott had an epiphany, with the experience of coping with the aftermath of Katrina opening him up to the wider sustainability agenda.

Most of these experiences – and I have seen a fair few companies go through them – are painful and disorienting for those forced to shift in short order from one paradigm to another.  And much of my work over the years has been designed to help trigger such moments, particularly when coining and promoting terms like environmental excellencegreen consumer or triple bottom line.

Study Tours And Exchanges

Another way we have helped tip executives into a different reality is through study tours, learning journeys and exchanges between companies and social enterprises.  These have ranged from bringing top Canadian policy-makers or leading Chinese foundations to London, to meet innovators in related fields, through helping guide 19 CEOs and founders of UK cleantech groups around Silicon Valley, to facilitating exchanges between companies like Allianz and social enterprises in Europe, North America and Asia.

Done right, such out-of-the-box initiatives can open eyes, change hearts and minds, and – by taking leaders and led out of their comfort zones – blaze the pathways to transformational change.

John Elkington is Executive Chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.   This article originally appeared on CSRwire and is republished with permission.

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