By Alec Masella

An organizational consultant on corporate sustainability, and a former instructor at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins has written a book pulling together the spheres of business and environmentalism to provide a blueprint for how companies can improve internally to make a positive impact on the world around them. Her models of corporate sustainability and evidence-based explanations of sustainable values demonstrate the symbiotic relationship these types of organizations can have with the environment. After one decade of research and nearly forty in the industry, her dedication to the development of sustainable work cultures has reached a milestone with the release of Leadership and Purpose: How to Create a Sustainable Culture.

Putting personal values into a purpose-driven business  Trained as an organizational psychologist, Perkins has always seen herself as values-driven—a trait gained from a personal interest in global sustainability. “About 10 or 11 years ago, I finally was able to combine my personal values in sustainability with my expertise in organizational structure,” she explains. “At the time, I was working with a client in my consulting firm Miller Consultants, and I realized that any business has the potential to have a positive impact on people, society, and the environment, while also making money. Business with a purpose.”

Perkins recognized that operating with a higher purpose might have been progressive for the time ten years ago. However, times have changed, and the trend towards balancing purpose and profits has gained momentum recently. In fact, only a few weeks ago, the Business Roundtable issued an open letter stating that all companies should pursue a purpose in addition to profits. 

Companies, depending on their resources and sizes, may feel that they are not in a position to make external impacts. Perkins advises keeping it simple. Her goal is to help executives develop a new mentality that could increase work productivity and advocate for environmentally sound decision making. The process doesn’t have to be complicated. All businesses have a purpose, whether they have articulated it or not. The key is to figure out how to make decisions that align with it.

Creating data-driven tools Leadership and Purpose puts two corporate sustainability models to the test: “profile of a sustainable culture” and the “transformational cycle,” both of which Perkins developed through her research. 

She explains, “The first one is more about what a sustainable work culture looks like, and the second is how you get there. The research process started by looking at a well-known global database to review companies’ outcomes regarding environmental and social performance, such as emission and resource consumption reductions, diversity, health and safety, and human rights. My team took the top 20% of sustainable companies, along with the bottom 20%, and we administered a survey about the culture of those companies. We looked at the characteristics of organizational culture that differed between the two groups. Based on these differences, we developed a culture assessment tool which we refer to as the Sustainable Culture and Leadership Assessment (SCALA). The tool enables companies to understand how their organizational culture either helps or hinders them in achieving their sustainability goals. Companies use their results as input to their strategy. The information allows them to find areas of strength to leverage, and points of weakness in their culture to address, so that they can more successfully execute their sustainability strategies. 

Converting ideas into big data is one of the most important aspects of the research: Perkins and her team wanted to challenge the way businesses could learn from theory in a more robust way. While many management books offer commentary from only specific points of view and anecdotes, this text roots itself in quantifiable data produced by SCALA. 

Senior Fellow and CLiGS faculty member Jerry Abrams comments on why Perkins’s data-driven approach is unique. “Evidence-based advice is rare; high quality longitudinal study, even rarer,” he writes in the book’s foreword. “In this context, the deep evidence-based advice and practical tools regarding purpose, organizations, and their cultures that Kathy provides could hardly be more important, not only to organizations but to the societies in which they operate.”

Making decisions based on facts, not fads Guided by the findings, organizations can learn about their own health factors and how their work environments are made up of components that drive productivity for the company as a whole. These can include quantitative drivers, such as rewards for good work, or qualitative drivers, such as feeling valued. 

A truly sustainable culture has to have a high score on organizational health. However, even though organizational health is necessary, it isn’t enough to truly support sustainability work. Perkins admits, “Companies can be healthy on the inside, but not actually do anything for the world on the outside. But good companies are the ones that balance the pursuit of profit with a positive impact. The cultures of sustainable companies are built on unique identities and mechanisms for interacting with people and institutions beyond their own boundaries.”

Sustainable companies integrate their identity and values into their business models and practices. At the same time, they tend to collaborate more effectively and differently with other organizations. They encourage all employees to interact with externals and to learn from them. This helps them innovate and grow. 

Taking on this mindset can be costly in the short-run because it often involves investments. Sometimes the payoff is too long-term to interest shareholders. However, research shows that companies that view themselves as responsible for and to society are more successful in the long-run than others. Perkins says, “The adoption of a different identity and mindset engages employees. A sustainable culture supports employees in working towards common goals and contributing to making a difference in the world. As a result, they are much more engaged in their work and with their companies.”

Kathleen Miller Perkins photo

Photo of Kathleen Miller Perkins, author, psychologist, and CEO of Miller Consultants
Kathleen Miller Perkins, author, psychologist, and CEO of Miller Consultants

Kathy Miller Perkins is a psychologist and the CEO of Miller Consultants—an organization that focuses on helping companies succeed by translating purpose and vision into actions to attract talent, engage people, and inspire innovation. She founded Miller Consultants to make a difference in the work lives of people through the workplaces that employ them.