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Leaders must “start thinking of business strategy as a living organism,” Colin Coyne ’85 told students in an Oct. 6 talk at the Kellogg School.

Colin Coyne

‘Big picture’ and profits merge in alum’s strategic model

After violating a ‘sacred trust,’ business leaders must transcend conventional thinking to regain reputation, says Colin Coyne ’85

By Matt Golosinski

10/9/2009 - Colin Coyne is an ardent capitalist.

But he’s also a tree-hugging environmentalist and a person deeply concerned about social inequalities that he says arise from the interplay of economic, ecological and political forces.

Coyne ’85, president of The Coyne Group, a Birmingham, Ala.-based management consultancy, is happy to wear these several hats. In fact, he believes it’s crucial that business leaders learn how to manage “people, planet and profits” with equal skill. Doing so, he told Kellogg students during an Oct. 6 visit, requires understanding that these elements are inextricably interwoven, not separate concerns to be pushed together fruitlessly without an overarching strategic vision.

For Coyne, the engine to drive a new kind of value creation is sustainability, “a [holistic] thought process” that complements — not replaces — existing strategic business models. “Sustainability is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” he said, during a lecture on the topic.

Good business and good environmental and social stewardship need not be at odds, Coyne believes. In fact, his strategic model places self- and client-centered strategies alongside growth- and change-centered ones. Importantly, all these aspects are contained within the much larger frame of society overall.

Leaders must, Coyne said, “start thinking of business strategy as a living organism, as part of a greater whole.”

A nationally recognized sustainability expert, Coyne added: “Social inequity leads invariably to economic inequity. This is a cause-effect relationship that can’t be ignored.”

The Kellogg graduate’s big-picture view derives in part from his worry that business has failed to live up to its potential — especially recently, he said, as the banking crisis has contributed to diminished global faith in the United States.

“The events of the last two years have fundamentally changed [the business] community. We violated a sacred trust,” Coyne said. “The Bernie Madoffs of the world have destroyed 100 years of competitive advantage. I see a global crisis in business leadership.”

But Coyne’s strategic vision is rooted in optimism as well. He is convinced that business is “a noble profession” that flourishes when leaders of impeccable character lend their talents to creating social and financial prosperity.

In fact, character is an important part of strategic advantage, according to Coyne. Making the connection between moral fiber and money, though, is key to sell the idea to executives who are squeezed to meet quarterly earnings estimates, and who may view sustainable practices as a costly sideshow with little relation to their organization’s core mission.

“Unless we speak the language of business to business,” Coyne said, “sustainability will just remain a motivational poster on the wall.”