From Inside-out to Outside-in: the Leadership Mindset in the Age of Climate Emergency

Guest post from Katrin Muff:
Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General
of the United Nations does not mince his words at the #COP25: leaders should
not fear the green economy, they should see the great business opportunity it
represents. And indeed, the climate debate has hit a nerve: the Oxford
Dictionary has elected #ClimateEmergency as the word of the year 2019.
While there are a few climate doubters,
most leaders I encountera don’t purposefully seek to harm the environment. To
many, the business case of reducing their negative footprint is clear and
progress is showing. Yet what is unclear to most is how to actually create new
business opportunities out of these societal and environmental challenges. Such
opportunities would result in what we call a positive handprint, rather than a negative
footprint. But how?
Having worked with leaders and their
organizations in the past decade, it has become obvious what differentiates
those who succeed from those who don’t. It is all about embracing a new
mindset, one that starts by looking at the external environmental and societal
challenges and then looks for a match internally with existing organizational
competencies. We call this outside-in
thinking. It is fundamentally different from the traditional inside-out thinking, which looks at the
world from the company perspective and assesses what occurs beyond the
traditional business boundaries and markets with a risk perspective.
Connecting such external challenges
with internal core competencies may not be obvious or evident. Otherwise, it
would have long been done. This is were cutting-edge innovation comes into
play. A smart combination of knowhow and process tools together with relevant,
friendly external stakeholders can do the trick! Our experience with the
business strategy approach of #SDGXCHANGE shows how organizations in any
sectors can reinvent themselves. While the magic happens in one carefully
designed co-creation day where internal and external stakeholder ideate
together, it is the mindset of the leaders that determines the success of the
There are two ways of creating that
mindset shift that work well with leadership teams. Both tools seek to trigger
conversations among the teams to assess where they are currently in a context
that has previously not been clarified.

One way is to assess the cultural readiness of the organizations by
considering the polarity of stability versus flexibility on one side and the
polarity of inner versus outer focus. A short survey enables a conversation
about where the organization currently is versus where the participating
leadership team would like to see the organization. The disparity of views both
on the current and the ideal future state are often eye-opening and allow an
awareness shift of those present in the discussion, irrespective of the

The other way is to assess where the organization is in terms of
having embraced “sustainability”. An entertaining short video frames a Business
Sustainability Typology developed by Thomas Dyllick and myself and a short
survey collects the assessment of the leadership team. While it matters less
where the leaders place their organization, the result frames a discussion
among the team that allows for new questions and perspectives that may not have
been addressed before. The ensuing discussion contributes measurably to the
mindset shift of the team by providing a new frame of reference that generates
new thinking and ideas.
The surveys and related discussions are
conducted prior to the ideation day where the leadership team is joined by
internal and external stakeholders, setting the stage for entirely new service
solutions and revenue models that emerge now. As Albert Einstein famously said:
solutions to problems cannot be created with the same mindset that created
them. And this is exactly what happens when the SDGs, environmental and
societal issues, are seen as opportunities rather than threats. These
opportunities will likely not only make this world a better place, but as
importantly pave the way for an organization to ensure its own economic
sustainability in a fast-changing world.
Dr. Katrin
is a thought leader in the
transformative space of sustainability and responsibility. She is Director at
the Institute for Business Sustainability and holds a position as Professor of
Practice at the LUISS Business School. She works with leaders, their teams and
their boards in the area business transformation towards sustainability. She
co-developed the Competency Assessment for Responsible Leadership
( Most recently, Katrin published Five Superpowers for
Co-creators (, which features the nine
building blocks of co-creation including a pragmatic solution for business
organization with the applied strategy tool SDGXCHANGE (