Leading Sustainable Innovation: Seeing the Forest through the Trees

UVM Accelerates Leadership Development & Tri-Sector Partnership through Online, Team-Based Simulation

I hate to garden. I am the type of person who would rather sit at my desk on a sunny summer day than plant seeds, pull weeds, or harvest anything. So it will surprise those who know me best that I just finished a ‘20-year’ stint as the Director of Forestry in Uruguay, on a team that launched a successful bio-products ‘business’ on the Rio Negro River outside of the city of Mercedes, and I loved every minute of it.

Those ‘20 years’ went by in a flash—it seemed like a mere two months. Eight weeks, in fact.

That’s how long it takes to earn a certificate for Leading Sustainable Innovation, a completely virtual, albeit intense and rigorous, new program offered by the University of Vermont (UVM), home to one of the top “green” MBA programs in the world.

The brainchild of Matt Mayberry, founder of WholeWorks, and Stuart Hart, Ph.D., author of Capitalism at the Crossroads, the program is based on the best research for adult learning: learn, apply, and practice.

The fully online program is comprised of core content from UVM’s top-ranked Sustainable Innovation MBA program. The simulation is a leadership practice field. It is a transformative, fully immersive, team-based simulation of running a new division—“Rio Negro BioProducts (RNB)”—of fictional multinational company “Paper Nation.” Participants learn by doing as they navigate a complex change process, transforming a conventional business into a sustainable one with clear economic, environmental, and social goals—the triple bottom line.

Participants are grouped into teams and take on specific roles to run the business—vice president, regional manager, plant manager, HR manager, EHS (environment, health and safety) manager, marketing and sales manager, and the aforementioned, director of forestry among them. But unlike most business simulations, this one doesn’t stop at the fence line. It includes active participation from participants who sit ‘on the other side of the table’—the key stakeholders from the public sector or in civil society, often overlooked in traditional business strategy but crucial when creating sustainable business strategy. In the simulation, these are represented by the ‘Mayor’ of Mercedes and the local manager of an international nonprofit organization.

“Our online learning environment is uniquely designed to support a learner-led approach,” said Matt. “It enables the learner to access content as needed—throughout the simulation and in any order. This means that participants access content when they are most motivated to learn. The content is in micro-learning form to provide quick “nuggets” that can be immediately applied on the simulation practice field—or directly on the job.”

Our online learning environment is uniquely designed to support a learner-led approach.

Beyond that, the simulation is also a practice field for working globally—and virtually. The online learning environment incorporates social media and collaborative features to ensure that the ‘work’ can occur anywhere, at any time—which is the reality for all businesses that operate across borders today.

“We set out to create a virtual leadership development program that would be even better than an in-person program, because we know that this kind of leadership excellence is required if we really want to move the needle on sustainability, including the cross-sector partnership which is required to obtain it. With this platform, we can scale the program by making it accessible anywhere there is WiFi. Our first program included participants from Europe, North America, and South America. We bring together new technology with an immersive team learning experience. And based on level of engagement, the teamwork during the simulation, and the high-quality projects, I think we succeeded,” said Matt.

The online learning environment is uniquely designed to support a learner-led approach. It enables the learner to access content as needed—throughout the simulation and in any order, but with clear direction and estimated times for completion.

Participant Iris Tebeka, Licensing Manager at The Dow Chemical Company agreed. “What I found most transformative was to experience such well-functioning teams. Although the program is entirely online, the simulation is built in a way that makes it virtually impossible to not work as a team. The more integrated we became, the better the outcomes round after round,” she said.

Although the program is entirely online, the simulation is built in a way that makes it virtually impossible to not work as a team. The more integrated we became, the better the outcomes round after round.

“The simulation facilitates opportunities to practice relevant course content and critical skills, like strategy alignment or triple bottom line management or systems thinking. The program helped me approach business strategy with a wider lens; with an eye toward looking for system interconnections,” added Juan Adorno, Assistant Vice President for the investment management firm Legg Mason.

Ultimately, the success of such learning experiences is in the application, and the final project is one that is not graded by a professor, but by teammates. Each participant produces a pitch leveraging new skills with an application to their day job. “I find that the LSI program creates a unique and valuable perspective in how any business can create a sustainable strategy. By focusing on leading innovative change, I have learned how to be a change leader in my organization with a focus in promoting the triple bottom line strategy,” said Zac Conaway, Operations Manager of Environmental Services and Chairman and Coordinator of the Environmental Sustainability Council at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

In my case, my teammates gave me high marks on my project, which was a strategy that leverages the strengths of my nonprofit organization, PYXERA Global, to address the issue of plastics pollution, especially ocean plastics. Essentially, the strategy combines our practice areas, including our leading Global Pro Bono practice, to foster the development of circular economies in partnership with clients and key stakeholders. It’s something I’ll happily be spending more time at my desk developing in global collaboration, with an eye to the triple bottom line, for all stakeholders.

Having spent the better part of four decades in international business, and the last ten years focusing on the leadership required for a more just and sustainable world, I was surprised at how much I learned (and remembered!) with and from my younger colleagues in RMB—from the intellectual rigor of the strategic frameworks generated by Stu Hart’s research to the very real-feeling emotional angst when presented by dilemmas and trade-offs in the simulation. I’m glad I didn’t need to spend another 20 years coming to those insights.

Leading Sustainable Innovation is a Professional Certificate program offered by the University of Vermont. For more information go to https://learn.uvm.edu/program/leading-sustainable-innovation-professional-certificate/.

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