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Steinbeis expert Wolfgang Natzke shows how sustainability and authenticity can take companies to the next level

The so-called fourth industrial revolution is radically changing many of the familiar things we associate with everyday life. A whole host of areas will apparently become even more adaptable, dynamic, agile, and efficient. Machines are now networked so they can talk to each other and optimize entire processes in the long term. Which brings us on to “the big one”: sustainability. Very few words have taken on so much new meaning in recent years. Wolfgang Natzke, director of Business Management and Innovation, a Steinbeis Transfer Institute at the Steinbeis + Akademie, examines what lies beneath this term and the implications of sustainability for corporate management.

It’s as if everyone has suddenly discovered sustainability, or is rediscovering it. A whole host of topics have come onto the agenda, from climate and environmental protection to bee conservation, urban development, emission prevention, fair trade, QC testing systems, migration, and many more. Hundreds of sustainability project teams are working on these topics in a quest for practical solutions. The general feeling in everyday conversation is that sustainability only needs to achieve one thing: an impact that is long-lasting. But the fact of the matter is, to “sustain” anything, first it has to be “attained” – surely? Which raises the next question: What’s motivating us to attain something in the first place? The search for a motive – the actual reasoning for wanting something – means we have to question meaningfulness. Or, thinking broader, it means we have to question the individual values of the “attainers” or owners of this issue. This is because our actions and behavior are guided by values. So inevitably, these values also shape our willingness to attain or own things in the first place – or thinking further, our willingness to sustain anything in the long term.

“As a Steinbeis Transfer Institute, we often get the impression that the majority of our contacts at companies are still ‘gaining their bearings’ when it comes to sustainability,” says Wolfgang Natzke. One thing that really leaps out is the gaping hole between the way they define sustainability and how authentic their intentions come across. This is completely incomprehensible, because sustainability is an amazing opportunity for a company to differentiate itself from the competition. Commercial success has always been determined by solutions that focus on urgent issues facing society. Ultimately, the key issue is whether a firm has the courage to make the right decisions and work out which innovations it will need in which markets to succeed as a business. When you make these kinds of decisions, you notice right away that doing this is not entering into some annoying risk, but going for something that offers huge potential. Business leaders need to work out “more appropriate” ways to solve society’s issues compared to other market players. Sooner or later the market and competition will deal with the other issues anyway. So companies – or to be more precise: management – must think and act sustainably to be successful. This raises a question:


The answer is simple: authenticity. In times of social media, companies and managers are subject to intense public scrutiny. It’s becoming more and more easy to lift the veil on anything you think you’re keeping under wraps. It’s like living in a greenhouse. So either you get used to it or the market will sort you out anyway. So authenticity fundamentally goes back to your identity. And it’s important that every manager thinks very carefully about the following vital questions:

When challenged by such questions, people typically try to formulate clear responses to “position themselves” more effectively in life – or in their life in business. It’s their identity that shapes the things that make them unique, answering this question: Who am I?

Nietzsche once postulated that, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” People seek meaning. They want to make a meaningful contribution or see the sense in doing something. And they will seek this meaning or sense at or outside their company. So the really relevant question when it comes to sustainability at a company is whether workers will find an answer to the Why or if they are simply bearing the How. At first glance, managing the Why looks quite straightforward – you just need to establish the right setup, provide precise descriptions of what needs doing, check things, and if necessary make adjustments. This can work when everything is running smoothly and it’s just about optimizing things. But it’s a fact that the world of business is shaped by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – or VUCA. When things are changing rapidly in the way they do with VUCA, managers will not have the right information (or not enough of it) to work out how to manage the How by themselves. As a result, all that’s left to the manager is Why. Plus confidence in the creativity of their employees in working out the How and planning it.

“We strongly believe as a Steinbeis Transfer Institute that authenticity in business and the trust it engenders are many times more important than certification or an official seal, especially when it comes to this postulated commitment to sustainability. The companies that succeeded in the past were always the ones that had the courage to step back from the mainstream and set their own standards,” says Natzke, with conviction. Natzke also knows that people always start to feel insecure when confronted with change, so he strongly advises firms to point to the sense or meaning of change, then sustainability will also fall into place. He also points out that sense or meaning are not something you can impose on people; people have to discover them for themselves. This is why values are the central focus of the portfolio of services offered by the Steinbeis Transfer Institute of Business Management and Innovation, for all players embraced by a world of VUCA – individuals and companies.