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Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser

Sustainability and leadership expert

Janet Haddock-Fraser

Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser is widely considered an expert authority on sustainability and leadership. Her current portfolio includes roles as Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, Secretary of State for Climate Change and Vice-Chair for the Resources Committee for the Peak District National Park, and as a Trustee for The Land Trust.

What began as a love of landscape growing up has transformed into a career dedicated to unearthing sustainable solutions to humankind’s most intractable environmental problems.

The climate emergency represents one of the most wicked and increasingly dire problems facing human kind. In a complex agenda that involves shifting perception and human behaviour, Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser sheds light on how we might embrace the leadership needed to make more sustainable choices, and ultimately build a better world.

From using the 5 R’s framework to make more sustainable decisions, to finding that one idea out of 100 others that sticks, I talk to Janet about what skills are needed by leaders in higher education and beyond to face the climate emergency with humility and humanity.

We have a moral duty to be role models for our power at an organisation and system level, so that students can take their learning out into the wider world.”

Louise Sustainability and the environment is a hot topic right now, but I’d love to know where your passion for the environment first came from?

Janet I was 16 when I really started to develop an interest in the outside and countryside, and it was a geography fieldtrip that first sparked an absolute passion for me in this area. Although my family lived about 10 miles from the Peak District we never went there, but after that trip I started to go hill walking and holidaying at youth hostels. Then as a sixth former I volunteered at the National Trust, going to their conservation camps, and after that I went on to study geography at university as my first degree. I love landscape and all aspects of it.

Louise How did you become involved in sustainability?

Janet I was well into my career before sustainability and sustainable development were defined, and it didn’t really start getting into academic or policy language until the early 90s. But for me personally, being involved in sustainability came from a desire to enjoy but also protect landscapes and outdoor spaces. When I was a student I went for a job interview with a big oil company. They looked at my CV, saw my work at the National Trust and my degree and said to me ‘you seem to be a geographer, why would you want to work with us? We’re nothing to do with the environment’. And I said, ’well you should be. You should be caring about the environment that you’re engaging with and when you’ve been drilling or mining or whatever, you should be at least thinking about clearing up afterwards’. I didn’t get an interview after that. But this was the next thing that sparked my interest in the wider aspects of sustainability. If you’ve got a natural environment, why would you not want to conserve, preserve and protect it? It’s logical to me, and I couldn’t see why people wouldn’t want to protect the resources around them. But back then, society wasn’t requiring companies to do much about it. What mattered was their shareholders; it was more profitable not to care. But now, the narrative is changing and companies are changing their practices.

Louise One of your current roles is as a Professor in Leadership and Sustainability, can you tell me more about the relationship between leadership and sustainability?

Janet When you look at sustainability, there’s a big job to do around influencing people within a very complex agenda, balancing the needs of the economy, society and environment. As a leader, how do you influence people within that space for positive change?

It’s hearts and minds that sustainable leadership, and leaders, need.”

Theories for sustainable leadership tend to focus on consultative and collaborative models, and authentic values-led leadership. The values-led part is a huge element within the system, where you can find great opportunities for creativity. The sort of leadership this calls for is empathetic, and able to take advantage of opportunities and be creative, while at the same time keeping the big picture and all the factors at play in mind. It’s not a ‘task’ type of leadership, it’s getting people to think about not just their behaviours but their attitudes behind this. It’s hearts and minds that sustainable leadership, and leaders, need. It doesn’t happen from the top, and it’s often not the people at the top of the organisation but the people within it, who can influence the agenda. Particularly in higher education, change and influence goes beyond pay grade.

Louise Why is sustainability important now?

Janet Climate change is at a tipping point, depletion of species is at a tipping point and many of the natural systems are at a tipping point too. And when you add in human society and the economy, the picture becomes more complicated. With the Covid outbreak and climate crisis, we’re seeing that the standard economic models and assumptions we’ve had for the last 50 years just don’t apply anymore. The economy is a house of cards, it’s just not sustainable. It’s built on large scale use of fossil fuels,  consumption and jobs that depend on this, so when you remove the need for consumption and those jobs no longer exist, what are people meant to do?

But during lockdown it’s really been brought to bear that when consumption changes there’s a benefit to the environment; we’re seeing a trade-off in play. I don’t know what the answers are to these problems, but we have a great opportunity to move towards a green recovery and greener economy, creating jobs that are good for the environment and good for society rather than just good for consumption.

Louise What role do universities have to play in this?

Janet The younger generation, who are moving into and through higher education, need to have paradigm shifts in their thinking to find their way through this hugely complex mess that we’re in. We’ve got to help these students undertake their studies and enable complex problem-solving thinking, and help them challenge the status quo rather than accept it. To deal with situations and make decisions where the outcome is uncertain, and to engage with the sustainability agenda.

Universities should be helping students learn through critical analysis, questioning and challenging, and the sustainability agenda is a good way to do that. We have a moral duty to be role models for our power at an organisation and system level, so that students can take their learning out into the wider world.

Louise What’s the sustainability agenda like at local levels?

Janet We’ve got challenges here too. I’m champion for climate change at the Peak District National Park, and I’m interested in what we can do to role model sustainability for our visitors. The balance is tricky, if we have too many visitors it leads to other problems like traffic and litter. The biodiversity in the park isn’t resilient to climate change, and there’s going to be species that die out, so we need to balance economic viability with the impact of people coming to see the very place that we’re trying to save. The government is telling people that open space and the natural environment matter more than ever, but their reducing funding; the mismatch is challenging situation.

For anyone in a leadership position where you’re having to make decisions, the first habit is to think about how those decisions will be seen in the future by someone looking back.”

Louise Are there habits that leaders can develop to take a more sustainable approach?

Janet Yes absolutely. I think for anyone in a leadership position where you’re having to make decisions, the first habit is to think about how those decisions will be seen in the future by someone looking back. This is really pertinent to what we’ve seen this summer with the Black Lives Matter movement, and as a leader or anyone looking to influence what happens in the world, you have to think about how young people now will look back and see things.

Having this longer-term view is really important for leaders as you’re often balancing a range of factors which are at play. You’ve got your organisation’s needs, but you may also be thinking about your own place within that organisation and where it fits in within your ambitions, your career or your wider values system as well. These things can come into conflict with each other at times, particularly when your values get pushed and you’re asked to do something that you don’t agree with. So not being parochial and keeping wider consideration, beyond the short term, in the frame is really important.

In an organisational capacity, it’s thinking about your stakeholders, not just your shareholders. In a university setting, it’s not just thinking about next year’s finance, it’s thinking about what’s your reputation as an organisation going forward? How will your alumni feel about you, how will the local council feel about you and where are you engaging with the local or regional community? How will your staff feel about you? It’s putting these factors into the mix, and taking the longer-term view. 

Louise What does successful sustainable leadership look like?

Janet I’ve asked many sustainability leaders, ‘when will you have finished? And when do you think you’ve been successful?’ And it’s really hard for them to answer. Will we ever have a perfectly sustainable society, environment, economy? No, because we don’t actually know what it looks like. It’s such a huge agenda, but if we can focus on the micro achievements, this is a really good way of helping people understand and see their ability to influence and change.

Louise At risk of sounding cynical, how do we caution against ‘doing sustainability’ for cosmetic purposes, rather than for real change?

Janet When I used to teach environmental management for business, I’d get my students to go through corporate sustainability reports and ask them to critique them and pull them apart to find out what they’re really saying, critically analyse this and not just take them at face value. A good question to ask when you’re thinking about sustainability and how you report it is, ‘is it great through and through?

Louise How do you get buy-in for sustainable ways of working?

Janet When I was researching leadership in universities for sustainability, I developed a model called the five R’s of responsibility, which looks at the reasons why you might do it. So you can do it to enhance your reputation, or to reduce your risks. You might have to do it for regulatory purposes or reducing costs, or it’s just the thing your gut tells you is the right thing to do. Many sustainability leaders in higher education are now using the framework for their plans and to influence others within the organisation. There’s also a term I like to use, ‘incentive compatibility’, which basically means looking at the system as a whole, finding where the win-wins are and where everybody feels they’re going to benefit from whatever course of action we take. For some people, they need to raise awareness of the issue, but for many it’s about really trying to change people’s hearts and minds and showing them that there’s a benefit to making changes.

When you understand why people think or behave in a certain way, you can better shift the agenda towards sustainability, even through small baby steps.”

Another thing I’ve learnt from my role as a coach is to actively listen, and practice unconditional positive regard. This requires you to listen without judgement and do what you can to get beneath the skin of what someone else is feeling and thinking, which helps you understand where they’re coming from and how you can create a shift in behaviour. When you understand why people think or behave in a certain way, you can better shift the agenda towards sustainability, even through small baby steps. This is a good starting point.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the influencers in your organisation and understanding where they come from and getting them to see the value in sustainability in whatever way they can. They can then help raise awareness, or encourage other people to see the benefit in it for them. There’s no one size fits all approach.

Louise Tackling two of the trickiest parts of sustainability – human behaviour and actually fixing the problem – must be difficult. How do you stay positive?

Janet There are two things that help me stay positive. The first is that I read quite a lot, and I read a variety of material that kicks off new ideas, and the second is just having conversations with people and thinking, you know, ‘how can this go forward in this way or that way?’. I tend to be the person in a meeting who will have 100 wacky ideas but maybe one of them works. I think when people first meet me must think ‘she’s completely off the wall here’ but knowing that maybe one idea might stick is what drives me, and the positive affirmation from other people helps as well.

Louise You have quite a varied portfolio as a Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, a  member of the Peak District National Park Authority where you’re also the Deputy Chair of a committee for Programmes and Resource, a coach and consultant, and a trustee for the Land Trust. I’m curious to know what drives you in each of these roles?

I’m eminently curious about people and about the world we live in.”

Janet They sound a bit disparate, but I’m eminently curious about people and about the world we live in. I’ve sort of cobbled together this portfolio from taking a set of paths that I never expected to, but what drives me is wanting to use my knowledge and skills in a way that takes the debate forward in sustainability. I’m always thinking about how we deal with this complex issue; how are we going to solve this problem? Sustainability is complicated, and people are complicated, and when you bring them together you get a huge, complex network. I like to make connections between things, and I’m often the person saying, ‘well if you’re doing this over here, how does that impact on that over there?’. The intellectual challenge and problem-solving is what keeps me going.

Louise You mentioned taking different paths, I wondered if you ever had a plan B, or dream, career?

Janet That would’ve required me to have a plan A! When I was starting out I didn’t sit down and say ‘this is going to be my career’ because you wouldn’t have found ‘sustainability’ in the career guidance handbook. Would I have done anything differently? I don’t have any regrets about the decisions I’ve made. There have been some bad things that have happened and that conflicted with my values, but the decisions I made meant that I’ve had opportunities to do other things which has led to some good times. I’ve got lots of intellectual pleasure and personal pleasure through a great variety of things I’ve done and through the people I’ve met along the way.

Louise Finally, if you had only one piece of advice for a leader what would it be?

Think why, not just what.”

Janet It would be that when you’re making a decision to think why, not just what. Why are you making that decision? What are the driving forces for it? What are the implications of the decision for stakeholders now and in the future?

If you can ask these questions right from the start I think you end up making more thoughtful, meaningful, decisions.

Huge thanks to Janet for sharing her expertise and insight on the wicked issues surrounding sustainability and leadership. If you’d like to explore more about considering the future or past, or taking different paths, Janet recommends Richard Bach’s ‘One‘.