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Advancing Sustainability Through Procurement and Systems Thinking

In conversation with Nancy Gillis, Programme Head, First Movers Coalition, World Economic Forum

  • August 2023

As with other Sustainability leaders I have spoken to in my Q&A series, Nancy Gillis did not wait for an invitation to take action on a topic she saw as both important and requiring change. Her drive for change has endured throughout her career although her focus has evolved to her current role in the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition

In our enlightening conversation, Nancy inspired me not only on the conceptual level about the significance of systems thinking, effective communication, and embracing risk-taking as crucial elements in achieving sustainable outcomes, but also on a very personal leadership level; about the importance of making space to be quiet and step back as leaders in order to develop ideas that drive impact. With ever-increasing “to do” lists and competing priorities for leaders, it can be challenging to find time to step back. It may even seem indulgent to some. However, as Nancy emphasizes, stepping outside the day-to-day demands to see the whole picture is a vital skill in a very challenging world.

She provides a unique perspective on systems thinking and its intricate relationship with leadership and the role of procurement. As a seasoned leader and passionate advocate for change, Nancy generously shares her experiences, inspirations, and invaluable insights on how to lead the charge towards a more sustainable future along with the role of the First Movers Coalition in bringing actors within the system together.

Read on for our conversation highlights:

How did your interest in sustainability evolve over time?

My interest in sustainability developed more from a systems perspective than from the more common entry points. I care a lot about the system of people and how people create change. Rather than being solely focused on the environment or helping people, I approached sustainability by understanding the holistic nature of systems. 

Could you share the story about how you advocated for systems thinking as a better approach to address the AIDS epidemic when you were a teenager?

I was a precocious teenager who felt the need to take action regarding the AIDS epidemic in the African continent. One day, I responded to a newspaper article by a government agency reporting that educational initiatives were ineffective. I penned a letter pointing out that the agency was not effectively considering the “system of people” in their approach. To my surprise, they challenged me to do better: ‘Dear miss, if you think you can do this so much better, why don't you?’ Well, tell that to somebody who wants to change the world and is an 18-year-old! I said, ‘well, thank you, I will.’ And before I knew it, I had a grant from the German government. This was an early start on the application of systems thinking and responded to them about complex adaptive systems and the deployment of that to drive change. 

This experience taught me the importance of systems thinking and how it applies to sustainability—which is all about systems, about understanding holistically the inputs and the outputs and the balance

How would you define your purpose?

My purpose is to contribute to making things better in any way I can. Rooted in a Jesuit education that emphasizes service to others, I strive to use my capabilities and capacity to make a positive impact in the realm of sustainability, whether it's social or environmental. 

Given the complexity that leaders and organizations face, what are the most important leadership traits to possess today?

A leader needs to find enough space within themselves to allow some of the other aspects to come into play. The first thing is keeping your own self simple, finding a space to relax, be calm, not to be responding purely to the fear, the stress, the threat that surrounds us, that change brings. 

Then, it’s important to remain curious. In a world constantly changing, leaders have to find complex solutions to complex problems. You can't linearly extend from what you've done before. That means you're having to think outside of the box. Give yourself that space to be quiet and to be curious. Curiosity allows you to actually ponder and have new ideas.

You are leading at the First Movers Coalition. What approach does that organization take to drive action rather than mere talk?

The First Movers Coalition aims to decarbonize economically essential sectors. To achieve this, we leverage the power of procurement and contracts. By committing to purchase products and services that have lower greenhouse gas (GHG) impact, we motivate suppliers to innovate and provide sustainable alternatives. We focus on using contracts as a means to drive change and transform these hard-to-abate sectors.

Thinking about your previous experience in supply chain, how does your background translate into what you find at the Coalition?

It's very relevant in the sense that we're seeking to reduce the GHG impact of these hard to abate sectors. What are those sectors? I call them economically essential because it's the sectors such as:

#1. Materials (cement and concrete and plastics, steel and aluminum). I mean, any of the buildings that your company exists in, right? Or 

#2 Long-range transportation. If you're an organization, you're either moving people or products. From that perspective, when you start talking about GHG impact in those sectors, a lot of that is not just a single organization in that sector, it's the whole value chain of that sector. These are the sectors that are responsible for 30 percent of global greenhouse gases.

From a supply chain perspective, when you look at these sectors, what actually binds them together? In my opinion, it's procurement or contracts i.e., contractual terms. With my background in supply chain where I've looked at the actual supplier relationship that is codified in a contract, it is very applicable to what we're doing with the First Movers Coalition: trying to use those contracts to drive change.

How can professionals in supply chain and procurement contribute to the sustainability agenda?

Procurement professionals are “the unsung heroes of the sustainability movement” and they are much more influential and necessary than ever recognized, which is fortunately changing! Organizations’ decisions of who you work with, whether you continue working with them, what they need to do for you, etc. All of that is codified through your procurement function. Increasingly, those characteristics of supplier performance on the environmental and social side is part of those supplier agreements. Organizations’ choice of suppliers, even the geography where you're going to source from. When you think about the system that makes up a company, inclusive of that supply chain, the procurement function behavior is changing.

What do you think makes a successful systems thinker and systems leader?

A systems thinker has the ability to step back and calm oneself because one is having to consider a full system. Right now, most of us live our waking hours on “slices of systems”. Changing that requires: 

#1 Zooming out. You have to step out of your normal daily engagement and give yourself space. 

#2 Relationships & Communication. You have to understand that when you think about a system, what does that really mean? To me, the system is what's inside. It’s how the members of that system engage. I think a systems thinker has to think much more now about relationships and communication between those relationships. Because that system really is only a system if the members of it are engaging - absent that engagement and communication - they're just little nodes sitting there. 

#3 Olympic Listening. The listening skill. How often do we invite leaders to listen? That's a huge skill. Listening with emotional intelligence. Because I think you hear the words, but are you actually hearing the meaning?

What are the most common challenges for both supply chain and procurement in advancing sustainability through systems thinking? 

Both sides of the equation, the customer and the supplier, are trying to achieve the same goal; but they may be doing it in different ways given their different vantage points. So what we see really changing the behavior is that communication on the topic. This is what the First Movers Coalition is enabling. What really needs to happen is both connecting and establishing trust in each other. That trust is essential—if absent, suppliers won’t take the risk.

What advice would you give to board members regarding supply chain and procurement in the context of sustainability?

I would advise board members to:

#1. Recognize and value supply chain and procurement as change agents within their organizations.

#2. Empower senior leadership to transform these functions by allowing them to absorb more risk and invest in suppliers who are innovating for sustainability

By embracing the role of supply chain and procurement in achieving decarbonization and net-zero commitments, board members can drive transformative change and foster innovation.

My conversation with Nancy was by turn educational, surprising and inspiring. Firstly, she brought to my attention the beneficial elements of contracts – essentially making commitments to each other as part of a supply chain, solidifying the basis of trust and enabling innovation and change. The concept of interdependence, codified through contracts.

Secondly, I was surprised by Nancy’s reflection that despite contracts and processes, one of the key success factors is still very much about the human element – connecting and communicating in a system is what makes it a system, not separate pieces. 

And thirdly, I was inspired by the role that procurement/supply chain professionals can play in driving significant change. I feel encouraged to be like Nancy and other sustainability leaders who have not waited for an invitation to drive change – but make changes where they are and through the systems they can influence. 

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