Connecting sustainability to business

Katrin Muff is a Professor of Practice in Sustainability & Leadership at LUISS Business School in Rome. She is also the Director of the Institute for Business Sustainability in Luzern. Professor Muff is a respected thought leader in the field of organisational transformation towards business sustainability. She wrote a successful book on the subject called ‘Five Superpowers for Co-Creators’. During the MaastrichtMBA Sustainability & Business Ethics module in February, Katrin Muff came to Maastricht to teach our students about sustainability in business. We are very proud that this globally recognised thought leader was willing to inspire our students during this module.

How business can be a positive force

Professor Muff is no stranger to Maastricht University, since she has been a member of the International Advisory Board since 2015. During the Sustainability & Business Ethics module of the MaastrichtMBA programme, Muff teaches three courses in three days. “The overarching topic is how business can be a positive force for solving societal issues”, she explains. “The first course is about connecting the Sustainable Development Goals to business and translating these goals into business opportunities. The second course is about how businesses integrate these new opportunities into the core of their strategy. How do businesses not only improve their recycling and energy efficiency, but also see which new products and services they can provide to solve critical societal issues? How can they use their core competencies to solve burning societal or environmental issues while making a decent amount of money with it? And then, the third course is about how to collaborate with external stakeholders in co-creations beyond traditional business boundaries. Because this is such a deep transformation of business; it requires that businesses change their way of doing from inside-out to outside-in. Such innovation happens by working together with external stakeholders.”

Empowering the next generation of leaders

In the 90s, Katrin Muff completed an MBA at Business School Lausanne. Years later, in 2008, she was asked to become the Dean of the same business school. Muff: “I was doing something very different in business and I thought: Why become the Dean of a business school? A mentor pointed out to me that being a Dean is really about empowering the next generation of leaders to be equipped to address the challenges they face. And I remembered that there were a few shortcomings during my own MBA. We were very much trained to focus on profit maximisation and there was no concern at all for societal or other broader issues.

 

So I started as Dean in 2008, a year in which business schools were blamed for the economic crisis. And for some good reason, I figured. The more I thought about it, the bigger the opportunity for change became. I realised we needed to contextualise business education and clarify the role of business in society first. In my opinion, business schools should empower leaders to take a step back from the day-to-day operations that we typically focus on in business education, to have a more holistic and systemic perspective embracing societal and global challenges.” The Swiss thought leader eventually helped transform the organisation at Business School Lausanne from hierarchical to self-organising. This new structure gave her more time to do research, which ultimately led to her becoming a Professor of Practice in Sustainability & Leadership.

 

Mandatory module on sustainability

Muff is enthusiastic about MaastrichtMBA devoting a module to the theme of sustainability, but is also critical. “I think the sustainability week is fantastic! Yet, I also think that elective courses are not enough. As long as topics such as sustainability are not mandatory, we will not really redefine the role of business, as some students are still earning their MBA degree without having had the exposure to a broader perspective. I think it is important that all future leaders are required to be exposed to this.”

Infinite amount of potential new business

For Muff, it is clear that businesses must contribute to a more sustainable world. She makes a distinction between two perspectives business leaders can have in accomplishing this. First, there is the classic perspective that it is the role of businesses to survive in its own and therefore be as competitive as possible to make as much money as possible to be innovative and find new market niches. Muff: “Business leaders looking at the societal issues from that perspective will think: ‘Is there anything in there for me? Can I be more competitive and innovative by becoming more sustainable, thereby ensuring my own economic sustainability?’ Which basically is a good reasoning, because there is an infinite amount of potential new business out there. Alternatively, there are also some more enlightened leaders that have changed their perspective and think that businesses have a role to serve society and the planet. They feel a more inner moral obligation to contribute to society and economy and they look for ways of understanding how they can transform their business to really contribute to solving societal issues while also remaining economically viable. Whatever your perspective, as a business leader you will have to look critically at your business model and perhaps totally reinvent yourself into a sustainable business, in order to have a future.”

Walk the talk

Professor Muff’s career is extremely versatile: she is a professor, director of a business school, director of an institute, consultant, writer and lecturer. We want to know if there is one thing she is particularly proud of. “What I’m most proud of is that I can walk my talk”, she says. “So I’m not just researching how businesses can be motivated to be a positive force for the world, for example. I actually do something about it myself. Teaching here is one way, but for me getting my hands dirty is really about working with a business and help it develop and implement a new strategy that will solve certain economic, environmental or social issues. Also, I am currently facilitating several multi-stakeholder conversations on major issues in Switzerland. That is really inspiring too.”

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