Greg Johnson currently holds the role of National Sustainability Manager, Commercial Property at Stockland – one of Australia’s largest property developers responsible for retail town centres, logistics centres, office and business parks, residential and retirement communities. I caught up with Greg to see how his Adaptive Leadership learning has impacted his leadership, and his role within the business. He shared great insights into Stockland and into his own personal learning.
JA: Hi Greg – here’s my first question to you: what keeps you at Stockland?
I feel really fortunate to work for an organization that has a clear purpose and values. At Stockland – our purpose is clear – which is that “We believe there is a better way to live”. It’s only one line, but it says a lot and it is inclusive. And I think for me, what I’ve learned from the Adaptive Leadership work that I’ve done, is that it’s this purpose that guides leadership.
As the sustainability manager in an organisation that has both a clear purpose and focus areas, I can hitch my wagon to that and I can hold the organisation to account for that stated purpose.
So if we do what we do in sustainability cleverly, so that it’s aligned to both purpose and values while at the same time addressing the key material issues that impact Stockland’s existence as an organisation, then we deliver shared value. We achieve both a return to investors, and a return to the community.
JA: How does that translate into action?
In believing there is a better way to live, as an organisation we focus on two key areas – Community and Environment. In ‘Community’ we focus on health and well-being, education, and community connection, which is a sense of belonging. For ‘Environment’, that’s probably a little more technical. It includes energy and carbon, waste and materials, water quality, and biodiversity. Both initiatives do have their own adaptive challenges and I guess that’s a big part of the learning as well.
We also focus on creating communities that are liveable. We aim to create communities where the people that live there, feel they belong. And if we do that well, then certainly there’s a benefit to the communities that live in those environments. And, if we’re creating liveable communities that people aspire to live in, more people will want to live there – which ultimately drives up the value for Stockland.
JA: What other adaptive challenges do you see in your sector?
At Stockland, we’re primarily a property company, so if I think about external challenges in the social dimension – housing affordability and mortgage stress are clear adaptive challenges. These aren’t issues that Stockland can fix, but we can help contribute to a solution.
We also have an ageing population in Australia and we have a retirement living business, so there are some challenges for us about how we respond to that. And as I mentioned earlier, there is a challenge around building community resilience. In the environments where we have our assets, we have a focus on improving the health and well-being, education and connection of the people who live there. These three focus areas are indicators of community resilience – and the initiaitves we deliver can help lead to greater social cohesion, economic viability, and connectedness.
While we can’t ‘fix’ the issues in the communities wheee we have a presence, we can certainly help contribute to a better outcome.
JA: And internally? Where are the adaptive challenges there?
There are two adaptive challenges that stand out. One is about developing strong internal stakeholder engagement. We need to bring people on our journey, and help them to understand why these issues are important to us and how we (as a business) can respond to them. While Stockland is a great organisation – it’s not perfect. There are pockets of resistance at times, particularly when new people come into the organisation and you do have to listen to the other voices, the voices of “no,” and ask the right questions, to probe, ultimately with the aim of having a better understanding of why they’re saying no.
The internal challenge that really stands out for me is the affordability of some of our programs. There are some terrific initiatives out there that we can implement that deliver better health and education outcomes for the community, but they are expensive, and if we try and do these things across the portfolio, it turns into a lot of money, and it’s money that comes out of someone’s budget.
Program affordability and being able to demonstrate how it directly delivers value back to Stockland is a key challenge.
JA: How do these adaptive challenges affect your leadership?
In dealing with any of these challenges you need to first understand how the issue is materially impacting the business. Then, have clarity around how addressing an issue will help us achieve a shared value outcome as an organisation. And that’s not always easy to financially measure. We have clear aspirations about maintaining leadership in the area of sustainability, so it’s always a challenge for Stockland to keep pushing – and that’s my role.
Issues related to indigenous reconciliation, accessibility or energy sustainability such as carbon neutrality across our portfolio – are key topics moving forward. We need to understand what it would take to be an organisation with zero carbon, and ask questions that will help us to meet some of the challenges around health and education?
I can’t possibly do what I do without being able to lead conversations that address all of those things, because if you can’t respond to that you won’t succeed in delivering against our commitments. Being able to get people talking, and hear all the voices in the room is extremely important.
JA: Greg, you spent a bit of time learning about adaptive leadership with us. Can you tell me how your learning has affected your leadership?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and there was one thing that stood out from the first day when I started my learning in Adaptive Leadership – and that was owning my privilege. Whether it was the fact that I’m male, because I’m white, because I’m educated, and employed – all of those things. Very early on in the program I learned some really valuable lessons around privilege, authority and power. Learning how to use that effectively in my adaptive leadership journey has been key.
JA: How have you used that?
I’ve learnt to listen to the voices in the room – to hear the “no”. Learning to listen, and not block those voices, or align myself to people who think like I do because there are usually valid reasons why people are saying no, or why people might push back. Once upon a time, I might have just rejected the dissenting voices and just keep pushing on, but I think listening and understanding what those factions are and what the politics of the situation might be has been extremely valuable. Learning how to probe and get below the surface of issues has been crucial.
Gaining insight, and understanding my role in the mess has been crucial. As we say in Adaptive Leadership – you need to get on the balcony to understand where you sit on an issue. Developing a better understanding of my role in things, and whether I am actually causing some of the problem for any reason – or contributing to the problem.
During the Canberra trip component of our program, we met with Kerrie Tim, who spoke with us about what it was like to be working as a senior advisor in Parliament as an indigenous woman. She spoke about her own experiences and the key message that I took this conversation was the importance of being at the centre of your own revolution. That if you’re trying to drive change, influence or get something done, then you really need to be at the centre of that. You can’t rely on the ‘system’ to make it happen. You’ve got to lead it – and you’ve got to remain the driver.
JA: How deeply did you dig personally to shape the way you lead?
I think I very clearly had a blind spot around privilege. Up until that point, it’s something that I’d never thought about. And, on the day that it came to the surface, I was pretty much stripped naked on it, because I didn’t recognize it in myself, so therefore I wasn’t owning it and I wasn’t using it. So, I think my words were, “Well, I haven’t used it for good or bad,” and I’m not conscious of it so therefore I can’t control it…”
I learnt by being challenged and being in that place of discomfort that that isn’t true and it has been in my mind ever since.
I believe that if I hadn’t done the Adaptive Leadership program, my understanding of privilege and power would be missing and my ability to use that to influence change would be lost.
I also remember going to the program saying that I wanted to find my voice, because up until that point, I believe I had a tendency to not challenge, to not ask those hard questions or assert myself. I know the key takeout for me was to use my voice to hold the organization accountable in its purpose – and that’s what I’m doing more of. I’m speaking up more, and trying to ask more generative questions, and placing myself into places of discomfort more often.
JA: It sounds like you’re also giving back. You’re contributing to the development of leadership capacity back into Stockland. Something that possibly you would have done before, but now you bring different insights?
I’m certainly looking for those opportunities to see how you can align learning with doing. If there’s an opportunity to create an environment that might achieve both outcomes, then that’s what I’d like to see happen. One of the things I’m trying to do more work on right now is around indigenous reconciliation, and where Stockland has a reconciliation action plan, as part of an organizational commitment, I’m looking for opportunities to see how we can implement reconciliation initiatives into our projects. So far, we are having some success with that and we are running a retail training program for indigenous participants on the Sunshine Coast to help provide employment opportunities as well as promotion of indigenous arts and culture and acknowledgment of traditional landowners where we have assets ‘on country’.
JA: Are you dancing on the edge of your authority.
I’m certainly looking through a different lens, and am encountering new experiences and opportunities every day. That example of doing more with our reconciliation action plan on projects, that’s something I probably would never have taken on once upon a time because I wouldn’t have backed myself to do it.
I’ve backed myself to do things that are probably outside my expertise, and that has put me in places of discomfort. But that’s the way you learn.
There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the outcomes of your work. And that might just simply mean there’s a cohort of kids that have benefited from a music workshop in a disadvantaged school, that school attendance has improved just on the days that they run those workshops. Or that those kids are more collaborative in class, working together, or their self-esteem is greater, or their compassion is greater. And that’s the feedback that we’re getting from teachers. We’re all human, and we want to see people succeed and it’s those impacts that have meaning on a personal level.
Find out more about the Australian Adaptive Leadership Program 2019. First round applications close on 30th November 2018.