“We knew that a handbook had to be incredibly practical… we tried to help people to really work through the stages that you need to think about.”
There could hardly be a more important topic for businesses to engage with today than sustainability, and yet most businesses are still at the very early stages of formulating their sustainability strategy. So when David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee were invited to write The Sustainable Business Handbook, they knew it had to be a practical tool that any business leader could use to get their own sustainability initiatives off the ground.
In this conversation we talk about what that meant in practice for structure and style, and how three authors in three different time zones can collaborate without tears…
David’s site: https://davidgrayson.net/
All In book site: https://allinbook.net/
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Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
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Alison Jones: Well, I’m here today with David Grayson, which is wonderful. Welcome back, David, because you were here on episode 163, I had a look back. So to introduce him to those who didn’t listen to that episode, where were you? David is an independent commentator, advisor and speaker on responsible business, corporate sustainability and collaboration between businesses and other parts of society.
He’s also Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University School of Management and the author of nine business books, count them. And the latest is The Sustainable Business Handbook: A guide to becoming more innovative, resilient, and successful. And it is co-authored with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee.
So it’s very, very good to have you back.
David Grayson: I’m delighted to be back.
Alison Jones: Great to have you here. And, well, I want to ask you about the genesis of this new book. I also, in time, want to talk to you about that incredibly long-lasting writing partnership of yours because it’s just a model of its kind, but let’s start with The Sustainable Business Handbook.
You do mention in the book, All In was the book that we talked about back in episode 163, and that actually gave you the seed for this one. So just tell us how it came about.
David Grayson: So it really came about for two reasons, the first was when we were doing the last book, our first collaboration, All In, one of the people we interviewed, Mike Barry, who for many years ran The Plan A for Sustainability at Marks and Spencer. Mike said to us, I’m not that interested in helping to make the gold medal companies that little bit better.
I want to get tens of thousands of businesses to aspire to become the bronze medalist, the silver medalist and so on. By that, of course he meant that yes, of course, we need to keep on pushing all of the leaders around the world in corporate sustainability to keep making progress. But the really critical thing is that we get many, many more businesses on the journey towards sustainability or some are now calling it ESG, environmental, social, and governance impacts of a business.
So we had that very much in our mind as we were going around the world, talking about All In, talking to businesses, I’ve carried on doing webinars during the COVID lockdown with boards, with senior management teams, with virtual town halls with companies where I’ve been in conversation with the CEO of the company, for example, about how they wanted to go on the journey.
We had in the back of our minds that we needed to do something that was even more practical. And then I got an email completely out of the blue from somebody at Kogan Page who said we’ve worked very collaboratively, very well with some of your colleagues in the supply chain faculty at Cranfield on doing some great books with Kogan Page on business managing supply chains better. We are planning to start a series on sustainability, given we’ve had the good relationship with Cranfield before, would you be interested in actually helping us to kickstart something on sustainability?
So I immediately went back to Chris and Mark, the two co-authors as you referenced, and we said actually none of us have done a handbook before. So this is outside of the comfort zone, but this sounds like actually the answer to Mike Barry’s challenge.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s fascinating. It’s a great example of how no conversation and no contact or thing that you do in your life is ever wasted. It all kind of comes around and builds on itself, it’s wonderful. That’s really interesting that you say you’ve never done a handbook before. Tell me what, when you sat down and went, Hmm, do a handbook, what kind of went through your mind? What did you know you had to achieve and how was it different to writing any of your other books?
David Grayson: So we knew that a handbook had to be incredibly practical. And I suppose one of the other factors that really influenced me is that I am still doing teaching at Cranfield, even though I’ve come off the faculty now. And we’re teaching a lot of exec MBA students. I actually started early this year to ask all of the MBA students before they came on our sustainability module, to go and interview the most senior person they could get at in their company and ask them a series of questions that we suggested in an interview protocol they might want to ask about sustainability.
And I read maybe 150 exec MBA student reports of their conversations with the senior people that they could talk to in their companies. And what was fascinating was that time and time again, the reports talked about, well, we’re just for the first time really starting to develop a sustainability strategy. We’re just for the first time appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer or Director of Sustainability. We’re just for the first time putting together a whole series of disparate strands and different initiatives and projects and programs into something much more coherent. And that really struck me as well, because it told me that for many companies, they are starting now to realize all of this sustainability business, this is serious stuff. We’re getting a lot more investor questions about it. We’re getting more shareholder questions about it. We’re seeing much more interest from would- be graduate and other recruits coming into the business and so on.
So we realized, well I realized first of all, and talking with Chris and Mark, we came to the same conclusion that a handbook had to be really, really practical. It had to be something that a Chief Strategy Officer or a Director of New Business Development or a CEO or whatever could pick up, could look through and get a sense of, so these are the big things that we’re going to have to think about in really taking sustainability more seriously.
So that’s how we really recognize that we had to do a handbook that would explain what each of the major items are. So whether, for example, we’re talking about boards and sustainability, or we’re talking about how do you build partnership with other parts of society around sustainability questions and so on.
So for each of the main topics, and we brainstormed on several occasions, what were the key, the critical things that we felt people across different sectors absolutely had to know. Secondly, then what makes this particular part of the sustainability jigsaw puzzle really important? What are the key things that you’ve got to do? Who’s doing it well?
And we decided quite late in the day actually, we wouldn’t just have a well-known company, who’s one of the leaders. In All In we very deliberately wrote about some of the leading businesses around the world in sustainability. We based it on 20 years of a GlobeScan sustainability leaders survey.
We decided that in addition to having a profile of a leading company, that anybody who knows this field would say, absolutely, we would expect to read about a Unilever or an Ikea or a Patagonia, or what have you, but for each of the chapters, in addition to a well-known leading company on that aspect of sustainability, we’d have somebody that is really just starting out, or is actually a company that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a book on sustainability. So there’s…
Alison Jones: love that …
David Grayson: for example because actually I didn’t a few years ago expect I would be writing about Primark positively in a sustainability book, but they’ve just come out with an amazingly ambitious sustainability strategy.
I was on the launch webinar. Listened to the CEO, their new Sustainability Director and so on. And I think it’s for real.
Alison Jones: I think it’s so true that often when you read a business book, you’re reading the same old case studies and you can almost, you know, there’s a sort of checklist of, you know, case study bingo. I love that you really took the time and trouble to put new ones in there. And going back to that idea of the handbook as well, just tell us, you put some really practical, structural elements in place to make it more practical.
So just tell us a little bit about that and how you thought through those.
David Grayson: So we realized quite early on that each chapter should follow exactly the same structure. So we talk about what does it mean, sort of leadership for sustainability? So what are we talking about here? Why is it important? This particular aspect? Why must you have good communications around sustainability to really succeed?
Thirdly, what are the steps that you need to work through? So we tried to be quite sort of, not over deductive, but to help people to really work through the stages that you need to think about. And then as I say, we had a couple of examples, who seems to be doing this well, and then what are some of the, you know, sort of further sources you might turn to, because obviously it’s a handbook which we didn’t want to get over long.
And then also what’s the key messages to take away, the summary and the key action points.
Alison Jones: And I think it’s so helpful for readers to have that kind of consistency. And just the way that you have put the resources and the appendices together is fantastic.
Tell us about your writing partnership, cause you and Chris and Mark go back a long way now.
David Grayson: Well, actually I was thinking when we were preparing for the interview that it goes back a long, long way. We’ve actually been working together now for five years. I mean, I’ve known Chris in particular for longer, Mark not so well before we started to work on All In back at the beginning of 2017, but yes, now five years.
So this time of course, totally different arrangements for doing this book together because we’ve had this little business called COVID.
Alison Jones: Well, you were always working very effectively, remotely weren’t you.
David Grayson: We were
Alison Jones: Tell people how that’s changed over the pandemic.
David Grayson: We were, but the crucial difference was with the first book, we had a number of face-to-face meetings, where we would meet in London for two or three days at a time, really intensively, with whiteboards because Mark in particular loves the whiteboards and is so effective when he’s got a whiteboard and a marker pen in his hand for capturing things.
So, we had that great advantage with All In that we were able to have some meals together and debate particular things that we might do, et cetera. This time, not only were all of our own meetings all entirely virtual, but every single interview that we did was virtual as well.
Actually, that helped because we were sometimes able to get interviews at less than 24 hours notice with some senior people.
Alison Jones: That is interesting isn’t it. Yes, it just brings the barriers down somewhere, doesn’t it? But what did you notice about the, I mean it’s interesting because of course, you had a relationship and I think, you know, for established relationships online communication is actually not that bad at all, is it. But what did you notice that was different and perhaps changed the way that you wrote the book?
David Grayson: So I think you’re right. We already had the relationship. We’d laughed together, we’d cried together in person, so to speak. And so we understood where each of us was coming from and so on. So I think it would have been harder to do our first book together entirely virtually. Because whilst I’m amazed at how, not just in book writing, but in so many different things, whether it’s my Cranfield teaching or speaking to virtual conferences or chairing board meetings and so on, it’s amazing how much we have been able to do virtually because we’ve had to.
But I think it would have been hard for us to have had the momentum and the understanding of where we were coming from and so on, and maybe also something about the fact that we had that kind of trust already between ourselves.
Alison Jones: The soft stuff. Isn’t it? Yes.
David Grayson: It’s the soft stuff which I think you can’t underestimate.
So like the last one, we actually did most of the writing in a very short space of time. Some of the team from Kogan Page may be listening, so I’m not going to say quite how short a space of time, but I think they’ve got a shrewd idea, but we still again, like the last one, we went through five or six drafts with each chapter and going backwards and forwards between us so that we were able to refine and refine.
Alison Jones: And did you find any cool new tech that allowed you to collaborate more effectively this time around, or was it just old school Word documents and email?
David Grayson: It was largely Word documents and email. I think we got canny about just some of the disciplines of how we were, really simple things like actually how we were codifying and saving different documents. So it was very easy at a glance always to know that you were working on the right document.
We did try with Google Docs and so on, but actually in the very final two, three weeks when documents were going backwards and forwards across the Atlantic several times a day and so on, the most crucial thing just was to make sure that we were keeping the consistency of how we were saving documents so that we all knew that we were working on the most current document.
So I can actually happily say that we didn’t have any kind of nasty moments where somebody had spent a lot of time and somebody else suddenly said then, oh, but you were working on the previous version.
Alison Jones: That was document 9.4. Yes, and do you know what, version control is bad enough when you’re working on your own. So just really impressed that you’ve managed to the three of you.
David Grayson: I suppose part of it was the advantage that we had different time zones. So like last time, Mark would finish off about midnight and would send stuff back across the Atlantic and I’d already been up and looking and reviewing overnight stuff from California and so on and able then to send stuff on by the time that Chris was getting up in Toronto and so on.
Alison Jones: Yes, I’m sure that helps, that is quite funny, you’re not working on it simultaneously. And you know the question that I always ask for the best tip for somebody who’s just maybe starting out on the business book writing journey, I always think it’s interesting that you’re doing the collaboration.
So you might want to speak to that, but you might just want to speak more generally. What would your best tip be for someone listening?
David Grayson: I think my best tip isn’t about collaboration. If you are going to collaborate, I think it is important that you really get to know your co-authors and as I said earlier, you take the time to really understand where each person’s coming from and critically, and what we did with both All In and with the handbook, we did take the time right at the beginning to explore, apart from anything else, what did each of us and our respective organizations, hope that we would get from the process of writing the book and how it was going to contribute to other things that we were trying to do and so on.
But I think my top tip for anybody coming to do their first book is really to think very, very hard and be able to be incredibly succinct, you know, the proverbial elevator pitch and only assuming you’re going up one level in the elevator.
I would say, you need to be able to say, how will businesses be improved because of what you put in your book? And if you can’t do that in a really, really succinct way, then I think you need to go back and have another go before you start to do the incredibly hard slog, because I think it’s really important to know what it is that you’re trying to achieve.
Alison Jones: It’s such a great tip and it’s so fundamental and yet it absolutely has to be said because it’s easy, isn’t it, to start off from your position of knowledge and to share with the world all the fascinating stuff that you have learned about this topic over the years and keeping it laser-focused on how is this going to make the business of somebody reading it better?
It keeps you honest, doesn’t it? And it’s that Occam’s Razor, it just gives you something that, is it going to go in or not. Well, there’s the question. Yes.
David Grayson: Absolutely. And I think also it means that you have the clarity about why the heck am I doing this?
Alison Jones: Which helps in the hard stretches, doesn’t it?
David Grayson: It does indeed. It does indeed. And for us with Sustainable Business Handbook, we were and are very clear, this is about trying to reach to people in businesses who now understand, whether they like it or not, that managing their social and environmental and economic impacts are not just minimizing the negative forms, but crucially maximizing the positive ones is now not a negotiable.
It’s absolutely fundamental to ensure business success. Yes.
Alison Jones: And it’s so interesting actually, when you were talking about your exec students having those conversations with their most senior execs, you think sustainability has been around forever, you think, well, not forever, but you know what I mean? It’s such a well established field now.
It is quite sobering isn’t it, to hear so many companies so consistently saying we’re just starting on this. And it’s important I think to remember that when you’re an expert in a topic is that actually people are coming from a very different place.
David Grayson: Indeed, I mean, I’ve just come off recording a podcast with Chris and Mark, because we now have an All In book podcast, and we were interviewing some of the Chief Sustainability Officers from around the world who very generously gave their time in our first series.
And we were doing a kind of a round up of 2021 and what does 2022 hold and we actually at one point, you know, sort of said, let’s just pause a moment because this is very much a kind of in-crowd conversation between those of us who are absolutely committed and get it, that sustainability is fundamental to business success.
We had people from Walmart and Ikea and from the largest company in Africa, Dangote and so on, or people who have previously worked there. It is very easy for us to think, well, all businesses now are like this, and we’ve still got an enormous job to do in reaching out to many, many more businesses of different shapes and sizes. And so that for us was the sense of urgency that drove us in producing the handbook.
And interestingly, when we were interviewing lots of people and getting them to clear any quotes and things, the messages that came back absolutely consistently was good luck in getting the final manuscript over to Kogan Page. This book is so important. It’s so urgent now, with everything that’s going on. So that sense of urgency, I think really drove us.
Alison Jones: And it’s great, isn’t it, going back to Mike Barry’s point right at the beginning is, you know, stop focusing on the gold medalist and just because you may not be a gold medalist doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying, we need the silver and the bronzes. We need the people who are just on the field, playing the game and doing what they can in their businesses.
David Grayson: And of course, you know, who knows, actually today’s bronze medalist is next time’s gold medalist.
Alison Jones: Exactly. Yes although I’m not sure how, the winning metaphor has its limitations, doesn’t it? There’s always going to be losers.
David Grayson: I was realizing I was about to probably trip up mightily.
Alison Jones: And David, I always ask people as well, as you know, to recommend, I think you’ve recommended Charles Handy last time, which is a cracking recommendation. So no pressure, but you know, I’m expecting great things. What business book would you recommend?
David Grayson: So the book that I was really captivated by over Christmas is called Empire of Pain, and this is the story of the Sackler family. It’s an amazing story of immigrants in the United States, in the 1920s, starting a business, hustling like mad, three brothers, all of whom from a very poor background, all became doctors and so on. And they built up a business, which they acquired. They had a whole series of businesses actually, but one of these businesses was Purdue Pharma. But then unfortunately, Purdue Pharma developed Oxycontin, which has massively driven the opioid epidemic in the United States. And this book is an absolutely, it’s almost like a thriller. In terms of the telling the story of the family, as well as of Oxycontin.
And for me, it’s a very, very powerful reminder of what happens when you don’t have responsible and ethical business, when you don’t approach things from the perspective of sustainability.
So I think it’s a different type of book. But for me, and particularly I keep reflecting as I finished reading Empire of Pain, I thought, gosh, that really stands alongside two other books I read last year, one of which was Bad Blood, about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, this amazing Silicon Valley startup that absolutely hoodwinked a range of incredibly successful, powerful people like Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger and so on. And the other one was The Key Man about the impact investing business, which again, you know, convinced so many famous people, so many established institutions and so on. And yet again, Bad Blood, The Key Man, built on unethical business and we see what happens. I mean, all of those businesses no longer exist.
Alison Jones: Fascinating and I know Bad Blood, but I didn’t know the other two. So thank you. I always love it when people do recommendation I don’t know.
It’s really interesting, isn’t it because it’s almost like horror stories of business. It’s also a warning, isn’t it, it’s a wake-up call too, because there are such huge consequences.
David Grayson: I spend my time, you know, talking about the good businesses and what they’re doing. And so it is a reminder.
Alison Jones: About why this is so important.
David Grayson: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely brilliant. Thank you. Fascinating recommendations.
And David, if people want to find out more about you and also more about the work that you and Chris and Mark have all done together and particularly The Sustainable Business Handbook, where should they go?
David Grayson: So, first of all, my personal website is very easy to remember, it’s davidgrayson.net because I believe in networking. We set up a book website for All In which we’re now extending. It will be launched again next month allinbook.net. dot.net too. And then obviously the Kogan Page website, and also of course on Amazon and other good book platforms as well as I hope, from next month in various book shops around the world.
Alison Jones: It’s launching in February, 2022. Just for context, we are speaking in January. Just because once it goes out on the internet, it’s got no timestamp on it, has it?
David Grayson: My mistake on that.
Alison Jones: No no, that’s absolutely fine. So basically wherever good books are sold, you will find The Sustainable Business Handbook and All In and all the others.
Brilliant. It was such a pleasure to talk to you today.
Thank you so much David for your time and thank you for having written what is genuinely one of those books that all businesses need and is going to make the world a better place. So thank you.
David Grayson: Alison, thank you very much for having me. All the very best, take care.