Five Keys to Unlock Human Potential and Solve our Most Intractable Problems

Five Keys to Unlock Human Potential and Solve our Most Intractable Problems
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By Jeana Wirtenberg, PhD, president and CEO of Transitioning to Green

With talented business people squarely in the driver's seat, I believe we can create an inspiring, engaging path to solving our most intractable problems. As the corporate agenda moves from reducing harm to acknowledging the critically important role business plays in the well-being of society, the new agenda will be based on shared value for sustainable progress. First we need to unlock and unleash the incredibly talented people in organizations who want purpose, passion, challenge, and meaning in their work. Given the statistics on lack of engagement of workers worldwide, we are sitting on a remarkable, underutilized pool of talent that must be applied to designing businesses that actually increase prosperity for all.

I firmly believe we can align the aspirational goals of business and society by creating environments where all the talent -- millennials, GenXers, and baby boomers alike -- are engaged in purposeful and meaningful work. Here are five keys to doing just that.

  1. Create shared value in the context of the megatrends

Mega-forces bearing down on business and society could overwhelm even the most optimistic among us. Confronting the impact of climate change, the havoc of extreme weather, depleting resources, and their consequences provokes fear and paralysis for most people. Add to that our increasing environmental and human vulnerability regarding health, persistent and growing inequality globally, and many people are ready to throw up their hands.

Looking through a sustainability lens, however, these same megatrends become the fodder to propel us forward, individually and collectively. Through this lens we create meaning and give purpose to our work lives and bring out the best talent. We see more and more companies are beginning to make this happen.

  • Develop core capacity for integrated thinking
    Through my recent work, I have identified four essential elements I believe are necessary for integrated thinking as a core capacity. These include: systems thinking, strategy development, collaboration and teamwork, and an integrated bottom line. Systems thinking includes the whole nested system, Earth, nature, societies, businesses, and how organizations and resources are inextricably intertwined. Business cannot succeed in a society that fails, or a planet that becomes inhospitable to human life.
  • Collaboration and teamwork are holistic and personal. They thrive on frequent, cross-functional interaction, distributed leadership, and mutual respect. This ensures that people are engaged, regardless of their level, and mitigates fear of failure by encouraging broad inputs into decisions reducing the likelihood of failure. Further, providing people with opportunities for cross-pollination, supporting spontaneous interaction, and both formal and informal mentoring increases fruitful outcomes.

  • Engage employees' hearts, hands, and minds
    Here are three great examples of engaging employees' hearts, hands, and minds:
  • Capital One does an exceptional job of using innovative strategies to engage its employees with community-based organizations (CBOs). In the process, Capital One develops its own talent, improves employee engagement and retention, and enhances employee morale, all while improving community businesses. Their Hands and Hearts "winning formula" consists of three distinct types of involvement: focusing on their company's core competencies, and leveraging leadership throughout.

    Ingersoll Rand integrates sustainability into the heartbeat of the company, engaging employees' hearts and minds through a variety of employee-centered initiatives. The company's One STEP Forward program uses STEPs (Sustainable, Transformative, Encourages others, and Personal), for easy, compelling, effective actions, that employees can take to personalize sustainability.

    Caring Capital is a wonderful example of engaging employees' hands and hearts to connect companies to causes. Through highly engaging philanthropic team-building activities, the company creates projects that employees make and donate to charities. I've brought Caring Capital several times into both my undergraduate "Women Leading in Business" and "Employees and Organizations" MBA classes because it demonstrates how to simultaneously boost collegiality across functions, enhance corporate pride, and help the community.

  • Focus on the positive
    As an organization development practitioner, I'm a believer in positive psychology and use appreciative inquiry extensively. Most recently, I have become one of the early adopters of an exciting project called AIM2Flourish. This initiative is a UN-supported platform that recognizes positive stories of profitable business innovations. AIM2Flourish seeks to change the narrative about business:
  • We believe that solving the world's greatest challenges can also be profitable, and that business is a powerful force for good to create a flourishing world for all.

    AIM2Flourish is creating a global community of students, professors, and business leaders to create a worldwide resource for sharing positive business stories, and becoming a catalyst for positive business change. AIM2Flourish innovations are focused on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. We are engaging students' hearts, hands, and minds to focus on identifying scalable or replicable innovations that simultaneously benefit business and society.

  • Use gamification to capture the "aspirationals"Gamification engages the hearts, hands, and minds of students, managers and executives alike. The GlobStrat triple-bottom-line strategic business simulation is one of my favorite tools for promoting integrated thinking. Players develop their ability to run a sustainable company for the short, medium, and long-term. They participate in a multi-year, team-based competition to learn about sustainable, triple-bottom-line business strategies and put them into practice. Using a cross-functional team design to boost mutual learning, knowledge sharing, and creativity, the program inspires and prepares leaders to run purpose-driven businesses. Over 20,000 managers and executives have participated in this program, including those in my company's LeaderShip for Sustainability program.
  • Learn more about unlocking human potential on May 12-13 when leading practitioners and scholars gather at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business for the annual Positive Business Conference. Join us, and together we will explore the most inspiring and practical approaches to breathing life into a sustainable future through positive business.

    Jeana Wirtenberg, PhD is president and CEO of Transitioning to Green and co-founder and senior advisor of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her company helps organizations make sustainability a mainstream, routine business practice. Her book Building a Culture for Sustainability: People, Planet and Profits in a New Green Economy shows how to holistically integrate sustainability throughout the culture of organizations. She teaches employees and organizations/HR in Bard College's MBA in Sustainability Program, and organizational behavior in the Rutgers MBA program. Please connect with Jeana at or via email at Follow Jeana on Twitter: @jeanawirtenberg and @Trans2Green.

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