EP11: Sharon Lawlor Jackson of ESA on creating sustainable organisational change

By December 15, 2015 Podcasts No Comments

Sharon Lawlor Jackson, founder of the European Sustainability Academy is one of those remarkable people who genuinely walks her talk.  Walking out on a highly successful career in the electronics industry in 1999, she has spent 15 years creating executive sustainability experiences all around the world to act as a catalyst for change at the highest levels.   Now based on the beautiful island of Crete, she shared her rich experiences and  insights into the successes and failures of the sustainability agenda, the challenges of organisational change, what she has learned from nature and why she believes organisational adaptability is key for future leaders, entrepreneurs and communities alike.

Connected Conversations Highlights

On why Sharon chose sustainability as a career

“I had a very successful career in the electronics industry but looking around at the way we sourced through our supply chain, considering the way in which we treated our staff, I felt a deep disenchantment with corporate life. I felt that it was not ethically sound. So at the end of 1999 I resigned my career. I took a teaching qualification to look at new ways of doing business and was naturally drawn to CSR and sustainability because I was wondering how we would change organisations to become more responsible and whether I could be part of a movement that would help to prevent people like me who couldn’t stay in a corporation that they didn’t feel morally aligned with, from exiting corporate life.”

Sharon Lawler Jackson

Sharon Lawler Jackson, founder of ESA

On what connection with nature can achieve

“After I left corporate life I went trekking in Nepal. What I noticed having been in corporate life for such a long time is that when we were in the mountains, when we were dirty, sharing little tents, supporting each other, we made a connection with nature that I hadn’t seen people experience before. What I was curious about was why we suddenly connected with nature in such a profound way, why people were able to have a personal epiphany only when surrounded by nature. The result of just that experience was that people change careers, partners, lives – the experience of struggling, getting dirt under our fingernails had a profound effect on everyone. I came back and set up training programmes to immerse business executives in sustainable experiences to help facilitate internal corporate change.”

The European Sustainability Academy

The European Sustainability Academy

On the challenge of anchoring an individual breakthrough experience in corporate action

“Between 2002-2007 I ran a wilderness experiential leadership programmes In Tasmania with a colleague I met in Nepal. We took executives into the endangered forests to look at biodiversity depletion, the areas I was inspired by while watching David Bellamy on TV years earlier. But it was the same story – taking executives from Australia and Asia Pacific to live in wooden huts, surrounded by kangaroos and pristine nature, they would break down in tears, and really experience a deep connection with nature.  But it was extremely difficult for them to take that breakthrough back into the boardroom of companies like BP, Swire Group etc. The challenge was still how to take that personal trigger back into business and to effect other people with it – to develop collective sense-making.”

On why academia has failed sustainability

“Academia has failed the sustainability agenda. MBAs in particular have not done the sustainability and CSR agenda much good. MBA students get a sheep dip bolt on approach to sustainability; the growth agenda is still core to the international MBA programme. Some specific sustainability MBAs have tried. My own academic work is around what makes people change in the first place, how we keep that change and how we affect others towards action and change. How we make sense of things emotionally and cognitively, the narratives we run in our heads determine what we actually do. The place in which we have that epiphany is what becomes the emotional anchor that we revert back to, to remember how we felt and how we want to behave, when we are back in corporate life.”

On what stimulates organisational change 

“What stimulates change in organisations is crisis, or a significant personal impact, or fear of outcomes. While working in Sydney we saw complete inaction against the depletion of water resources until the day that the water stopped coming out of the tap. It’s the same here in Crete where there is now regular flooding in Almerida – 4 times this year – due to climate change, so now people are starting to consider it, talking and taking action. Systemically we need tectonic change in the way in which we behave.”

On the role of ESA

“As someone who is very critical of organisations and community leaders who do all the talking and don’t change, ESA is about walking our talk. ESA shows you can do something to show you can live a sustainable life that is still beautiful, elegant and functional. It’s a totem to show people the way and get them to feel that there is a different way of doing things.

European Sustainability Academy

The lecture room at ESA

On the kind of organisations that can create change

“One of the key problems is that traditional organisations have no structure to enable or allow behaviour change or sustainable behaviours. So we see 20 wonderful managers who come through a programme, go back to their organisations wholly inspired, and cannot enact. Those organisations that are set up on a pure profit and growth model, cannot change. A very few like Interface, can do it. He had his own epiphany when he read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, but he owned his own organisation was able to change it. In my experience only those organisations that started on a moral foundation such as Panasonic which was founded by a Bhuddist monk to serve society are able to achieve it. The moral foundation acts as the anchor. When you get to the core of a corporation with moral foundation at its heart, people buy into that credo. They have the fundamental frameworks to enact change.”

Why adaptability is the key focus for the future

“Adaptability is the key word these days. When I visited the Arctic circle with Dr Peter Kershaw and his team who were measuring climate change, I saw how the Inuit people back in 2007 were already struggling – depression and alcoholism was filtering in because their lives had been changed by climate change. But they are adapting. They are having to be agile and resilient, and are creating a different mindset. This is what we are focused on today, creating educational programmes that can help people become adaptable. Adaptability has replaced sustainability because despite what happened at Cop21, it’s too late for us to stop runaway climate change. We have to learn to adapt.”

Why Sharon built ESA and what it achieves

“I set up ESA to become an anchor to remember how they feel about the importance of sustainability issues, to help keep the narrative going in their head. I set out to recreate the Nepal experience. Together with two revolutionary local architects, we used traditional Cretan building techniques and materials.

Sharon at ESA

Sharon at ESA

We have created a space where people can have a safe transition in thinking. Where they can use the different spaces we have created internally but also go into the outdoor spaces, study the mountains and stars. ESA is a place where people can be open to learning and start a safe transition where they feel loved and secure, a sanctuary. Learning starts with a personal experience, and the reflective work goes on afterwards.”

On the challenges for social enterprise in Southern Europe

“The challenge in southern Europe to set up social enterprises is very different compared to the northern states. Levels of confidence in women is much lower than in northern europe, and they also have less skills and ability to manage money. That lack of confidence and inability to manage money, means that they go forward with an attitude that people are not going to help them or lend them money. The WISE programme has been a huge success. We are immensely proud of the leading 5 exceptional women who have set up enterprises, and a further 10 who are struggling but still making progress.”

Sharon’s Three Top Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs & ChangeMakers

  1. Know why you’re doing it. Investing my whole life savings in building ESA was not something to do lightly. It’s a vocational change. You can keep going when you know your why from a deep values chain that you have identified within yourself.
  2. Don’t use the word sustainability – it’s too complicated. In the context of sustainability, use language that people can easily understand. Speak in human terms to customers and suppliers alike.
  3. Make sure you get the right people around you. You can be held back by choosing the wrong people. You need people that aren’t exactly like you, because you need healthy challenge, but they must have the same values base.

How to stay resilient – release your inner goddess

The Inner Goddess at The Cretan Tax Office

The Inner Goddess at The Cretan Tax Office

This can’t be regaled in print. You’re going to have to listen to the recording to get the full benefit of this amazing story of entrepreneurial genius!

How to stay personally resilient

1. Practice Gratitude
2. Listen to your body, stop, rest, sleep and recuperate when you need to
3. Keep and foster your sense of humour
4. Meditation and breathing exercises
5. Find a writer who inspired you, mine is Oriah Mountain Dreamer – The Invitation
6. Nurture yourself with good food and immersion in nature
7. Know yourself – know how you re-energise and make time to do it.


In the full podcast you will also be able to learn:-

  • The way to create successful change initiatives today
  • The negative impact of clicktivism and social media on creating real change
  • How stakeholder value and the sustainability agenda has been hijacked by marketeers

Key Links

European Sustainability Academy

AIDI India

Oriah Mountain Dreamer – The Invitation

The 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

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