At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Kim Dabbs, Global Vice President of ESG and Social Innovation at Steelcase and author of the upcoming book, You Belong Here on the importance of building a global learning community, the power of inclusive design, and the importance of centering the wellbeing of your teams and of other leaders.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you tell us about your professional and personal journey to this field?

Kim Dabbs, Global Vice President of ESG and Social Innovation, Steelcase: Belonging has been my North Star in the work that I do, both in the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector. I believe that everyone has a role to play in this, and part of my journey has been trying to figure out what each individual’s role is, and how to build safe spaces where everyone can be seen, heard and valued in the world.

That’s a journey that began in high school. I remember that early on, during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the AIDS crisis was devastating entire communities. I started volunteering with the AIDS Resource Center when I was a teenager, and through that, I discovered the power of collective action in effecting change.

When I was really young, I took a trip with the AIDS Resource Center to see the NAMES Project in Washington, DC. It was the last time the AIDS quilt was displayed in its entirety; it spanned the entire mall, showcasing art being used for activism and the power of collective impact. When people are confronted with issues in ways that they cannot look away from, that’s when real change happens. That experience truly kickstarted my journey.

Following that, I worked extensively in the nonprofit sector, focusing on arts, culture, and creativity, and the significant roles they play in the world. This path led me through endeavors into equity in education, and now into the work I do at Steelcase.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you make sense of this moment in ESG? What is the potential and the promise, and where are the pitfalls?

Dabbs, Steelcase: We’re seeing before us the promise of collective action. Right now, I genuinely feel that a movement has been built. Everyone wants to make a difference, and how that difference is manifested varies from person to person, depending on the distinct capabilities or resources they bring to the table. But the task at hand is to align everyone towards the same direction. If we can build a global learning community centered around progress, that’s when real action can ensue. We have to approach this through a lens of abundance, not scarcity; through endless possibility, not fear. 

Yet, we all face resistance at some point in this journey. I see criticism as a good thing. I believe it always propels progress forward, and if you have criticism, it usually means you have a diverse range of people and perspectives at the table. But criticism can get unproductive when it comes at the expense of supporting one another. If we can center that support in our collective success when we make our criticism, I believe we can make a substantial difference in our lifetime. 

That’s easier said than done, and it’s important to remember that this is ongoing work. No matter the difference you and I make in our lifetime, there will always be another generation with their own set of challenges, and a generational workload ahead. Keeping this perspective in mind is crucial too.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s unique about the work you’re leading at Steelcase?

Dabbs, Steelcase: We know that leaders at large organizations grapple with the questions of how to get better at actually sharing insights so what happens in Hong Kong can inform what’s happening in New York, which can in turn inform what’s happening in Mexico. The work that we’re doing here at Steelcase is about building a global learning community, about building the infrastructure for these conversations to happen. We focus on finding ways we can invite more people to the table, and finding more ways we can share insights, thought leadership, and best practices. The lab is really that community where we come together and say, “we’re going to learn from each other and with each other.”

That’s why we launched our Better Futures Community. Both our internal and external partners, as well as our clients and community partners, are involved because no single organization, industry, or sector has all the answers. The more we can come together and understand, the better. 

We do this through our Better Futures Lab, which is really about radically open innovation. We do this through the Better Futures Fund, which supports promising, new ideas in the areas of equity, education, and the environment, hoping to bring them to a point where we can design proof of concept together and then share it and embed it back into people’s value streams. And finally, we have the Better Futures Fellowship, which is an accelerator and incubator for bold new ideas around equity, education, and the environment. The last fellowship we had was around well-being and education, and the one before that focused on equity and education. We cover different topics every year.

A little bit of everyone’s involved in Better Futures at Steelcase: from our clients to nonprofit partners to architecture and design firms. A good example of this is our Better Futures work with G3ict. Together, we worked on understanding what inclusive design means for the world of work. We conducted a study with them last year to really build the blueprint for the inclusive workplaces of the future.

Because of that research, Better Futures helped support our own inclusive design practice here at Steelcase. As a result, we’re joining coalitions like the Valuable 500 to make inclusive design core to our strategy at Steelcase, and core to how we help create workplaces in the world. It’s really about understanding where that shared value lies, and where we have a chance to actually make a difference, impacting not just the lives of our employees, but the lives of all our clients as well when we bring these concepts into action.

We’re in it for the long haul. People talk about long-term value. For us, it’s always about understanding that change won’t be instant. This is long-term iteration, partnering side-by-side to say, “hey, let’s try to move the needle. Some things are going to work, some things aren’t, but we’re really committed to it.” And if we learn things along the way, we have to share it with others to shorten their innovation time concerning what works and what doesn’t. So, we’re constantly publishing, sharing, and using public forums to help people see and understand. 

With the launch of the lab, part of it is understanding that nonprofit organizations are often focused on the local level, which they should be, but they’re not often plugged into that global community. So, we’re trying to figure out how we use our global scale to help them see different perspectives, get to know each other, and understand new approaches.

Behrman, NationSwell: What would be valuable for other leaders in the field to know about what you and your team have learned?

Dabbs, Steelcase: Last year, our community was dealing with the trauma of the police-involved shooting death of Patrick Lyoya. In that moment, the first thing that we did was reach out to our community partners and give wellbeing dollars to the leaders of the organizations that were on the ground doing community response work, because we knew that there was nothing more essential than supporting people on the frontlines. I remember telling them, “You decide how you spend that wellbeing money, just do something to take care of you. Whatever it takes; you get to decide. But just know that we’re here to support you in your journey as a leader and that your wellbeing matters just as much as the people that you’re serving.”

The people on your teams are the people who are in this work, professionally and personally. We’ve learned that wellbeing is critical. How leaders take care of their teams, how leaders take care of other leaders — all of that matters. 

At our team, we start every team meeting with our team norms. And just the repetition of those norms on a weekly basis keeps everyone focused on the same things, helps everyone understand why we’re doing this work. Little rituals like that that are not to be underestimated in this really deep, heavy, forever work.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which of your leadership practices do you attribute your efficacy?

Dabbs, Steelcase: If you’re going to be a leader in this space and be successful in your leadership, you have to be radical and revolutionary. You have to act with bravery. You are delivering hard news to systems that don’t want to change. So in order to do this work, you need to have the resilience to be able to do that. 

We have to challenge the way things are. And if you’re willing to interrogate systems, if you’re willing to act with bravery, if you’re willing to speak truth to power, those are the things that are going to change the world. And those are things that I try to do every single day.

If a table isn’t set for equity and justice, I’m not going to pull up a chair to that table. I’ll build my own. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are the fellow leaders who inspire your leadership?

Dabbs, Steelcase: I think everyone’s doing tough work, right? The majority of people that I find incredibly inspiring are the people on the ground doing the work. I used to be a single parent, going to college, working two jobs, living on the streets. I’ve experienced homelessness. And to me, the people that I look at, it’s really, truly the people that I serve. 

When I look at the adversity that people have to overcome with systems that are difficult, those are the people we should really hold up as leaders. So there are people and organizations that obviously are making a difference, whether that be Acumen, Ashoka or others, that are building these powerful, beautiful networks to make impact happen. But at the end of the day, the people that continuously inspire me are the people that have the most to lose.