Your 2020 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Reading List

For the last two years, I’ve published an annual Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability reading list (see 2018 and 2019 at these links), and I’m delighted to be back with my list of recommendations for 2020. As I said two years ago, my favorite question to ask in networking situations or with friends is “What are you reading?” And this year, it feels like there were so many incredible books, I’m not sure where to start.

When it comes to corporate responsibility and sustainability, though, what feels more true to me now than ever is that CR and sustainability professionals are no longer and can no longer afford to be on the outskirts of a business. They cannot be the people standing on the sidelines calling “foul” when something goes wrong. They cannot be the moral compass that is called upon only in a time of crisis. And they certainly cannot be just the charitable givers whose work disguises or makes up for negative impacts in the enterprise. Companies who truly understand corporate responsibility and sustainability, and world-class leaders of these functions, understand the function is only strong when it is truly baked into the DNA of a business at every level. It is for that reason most of my recommendations this year are not sustainability-specific, but rather business focused. Now more than ever, CR leaders must also be business leaders.

  • At the absolute top of my list this year is New to Big: How Companies Can Create Like Entrepreneurs, Invest Like VCs, and Install a Permanent Operating System for Growth. Recommended to me by the incredible Susan McPherson, the book is co-written by her friend (and my new girl boss hero) Christina Wallace and her business partner David Kidder. Kidder and Wallace’s business, Bionic, has reshaped the way corporations approach innovation called the Growth Operating System. Bionic is employing tactics successful in small, entrepreneur-led businesses in major corporations. They’re taking what entrepreneurs are good at – taking things from “new to big” – and deploying them in places that are usually only good at “big to bigger.” As I listened to this book on Audible over my holiday break, I found myself clipping (the Audible version of highlighting a section) almost by the minute and thinking to myself, “This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to work in corporate responsibility.” The innovation tactics Bionic employs are so similar to the innovation tactics we must employ as leaders in responsibility and sustainability. It’s a must read.
  • Last year, I recommended John Carreyrou’s eponymous Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. When companies – big or small – go through crisis like this, it’s an opportunity for corporate responsibility leaders to think about what we might have done in the same kind of situation. Would we have seen the writing on the wall? Would we have spoken up? Or would we have let it go? Would we make excuses and hide behind our titles or the good work we know we do to protect our company? In a similar way, this year I’m recommending Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, investigative reporter Mike Isaac’s take on the ouster of Travis Kalanick following years of accusations of bad behavior directed at Kalanick and his leadership team, pervasive throughout the company.
  • A list of 2019 books about ethics wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Permanent Recordby Edward Snowden. Whether you agree or disagree with Snowden’s actions or tactics, his book is a phenomenally written commentary on the rise of the internet age and the ethically and morally based questions the growth of our online lives raise. The book details the invention and rise of the internet in the 1980s and 1990s, and following that the invention and rise of the giant firms who today dominate the top of the Fortune 100. Snowden, in every word, poses the question of responsibility as it relates to issues like privacy with these companies, and in the sustainability of their growth in our lives and in the marketplace.

And finally, I’d like to recommend two books I feel are paramount to read as you navigate the profession of corporate responsibility and sustainability:

  • It’s unfortunate, but many of the conversations I’ve had this year with my fellow leaders in corporate responsibility and sustainability have been about frustration in our respective roles. The truth is, sometimes these jobs feel like proverbially banging our heads against a wall. Corporate responsibility leaders work every day to affect change and companies that are steeped in their ways and difficult to change, even in the slightest. So it’s natural we all sometimes wonder if we’re in the right place. In that state of despair some of us might be in from time to time, the book Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life by Laura Gassner Otting is a breath of fresh air – a feeling that someone, finally, hears us. Laura’s book is centered on the concept of having consonance in your career – and four “C’s” within that – calling, connection, contribution and control. If you are experiencing a difficult moment in your career, it’s because you’re missing one of those “C’s.” Laura’s concepts have become, for me, a way to evaluate every opportunity – does it add to my sense of consonance in my career or detract from it? I hope it will be for you as well.
  • Any list of books for me is not complete without a mention of the indubitable Brené Brown. Her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone was quite literally life changing for me, and I think it will be for anyone who works in the field of CR and sustainability because it tackles the courage needed to stand alone. If you work in this field long enough, you will certainly encounter times when you are the only person in the room shouting “LOOK OUT, the worst is coming.” You will be the person who has to have the courage to speak truth to power when you know there is risk or crisis or concern. This book made those moments more clear to me than ever before, and I know you’ll feel the same. More TED Talks, Brené, we need you!

What were your favorite CR or sustainability directed reads in 2019? What books are you most excited to read in 2020? Share in the comments below.