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Working in sustainable development

uczjsdd12 October 2021

Dr Guy Bullen has an EngD in Decision Making from UCL (2009). After working at a large international company for 25 years, he founded ToBeToAct, to promote sustainable development for organisations, teams, and individuals. Guy told us about his career journey, and passed on tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path – including those graduating into a tough and uncertain economic climate.

  • Tell us about your current role

I have created my own small company in coaching, consulting, and training. The focus is to help emerging businesses develop and grow sustainably. For me, the picture is quite clear: given the facts on climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources and the collapse of biodiversity, we’re heading for an extremely complicated time. In my work I present the latest research to people – which can be scary for them. I encourage them to think about how they are going to create a thriving enterprise in this environment where everything is changing. I believe the key is to cultivate the better part of our human nature in any way we can–and this applies, perhaps especially, to business. This may sound idealistic, but in fact it is a pragmatic (maybe even selfish) approach: the only way to survive when things get really tough is to create oases where there is mutual respect. Otherwise we simply go back into tribalism.

  • How did you move from PhD to your current role?

I took a bit of an unusual route into academia. I already had significant management responsibilities when I started my doctorate. I was selected, as part of a talent initiative, to do a Masters degree. The course leaders appreciated my Masters dissertation and suggested I go on to do a doctorate on the same subject. I did, but as I was doing 60+ hours a week alongside the EngD, it wasn’t easy! If there’s one lesson I could pass on to people thinking of doing something similar, it would be to negotiate beforehand with your employer that they give you the time to work on your doctorate, and make sure they give you the days off that they promise you. Be far more firm than I was about protecting your doctorate time!

Had the perfect opportunity presented itself to stay in academia I would have taken it. However, I was already on a good salary, and post-doc wages were not appealing, especially as I had a family. So I stayed in industry after I graduated, writing the business plan for the company’s operations division (12,000 people), and then taking on the additional responsibilities of managing volunteering and implementing the company’s sustainable development into its operations. After leaving the company, this experience set me up well for delivering training in sustainable development.

  • How did graduating into the last recession impact your career path?

As I was already in work, at first it didn’t impact me personally. However, I was doing the business plan for the company’s operations, and saw the impact in the financial cuts and headcount reductions due to the crisis. Furthermore, although the decision-making model I devised within my doctoral studies could have been very useful to them, I was going through a tough time personally with a divorce, I was under pressure at work, and it was not the best time in the company to bring in innovative approaches to decision making. Eventually the cuts hit me, and four years later my role was cut and I took redundancy.

  • What does a normal day look like for you?

In July and August there is little happening for independent consultants, and I usually use this time for research and attending training courses. During the rest of the year there are four types of typical day:

  • Teaching start-ups about business and sustainable development. Normally they are classes of about 15 people who are creating their own business. These will be two-full-day sessions where I share the latest facts on climate change, the economy, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse. I provide tools for them to build a collaborative business and to do their risk analysis in view to equip them to build resilient businesses.
  • English classes for Masters students at a Paris university. Instead of giving a typical English lesson, I run workshops on leadership, decision-making, conflict resolution, and get the students to discuss those issues, which are of high interest to them, in English. I don’t teach grammar – I hate grammar!
  • Doing research on the collaborative economy, sustainable development and where society is heading.
  • Days full of administration and accountancy. When you own your own business you spend inordinate amounts of time doing the things that the finance or legal departments do for you in big companies!

 

  • What are the best bits?

The best bits usually happen on the courses I deliver to start-ups. They’re two days long, and towards the end of the second day, when people realise they can build a business without necessarily being “nasty” people, that’s amazing to watch. It’s a message that goes against a lot of what we have been taught. In the States in the 1980s it was sometimes fashionable to state that “Greed is Good”. But the research I have encountered (for example Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons, Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” or Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”) shows that when you create the right context, altruistic behaviour comes “naturally”; and that collaboration and respect for those who work with you are actually the levers for high performance, which leads to profitable and sustainable businesses. It’s a wonderful moment for me when I see the penny drop and attendees realise they can make money and be a force for good in the world. When people thank me afterwards for helping them to see business in a completely different light, those are the most rewarding times for me.

  • What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges came from leaving a huge company; moving from being part of a team of 100,000 people to being a single lone person trying to start a business. For a number of months I was a little disoriented, so I didn’t do anything productive, which I think would be common for many people in this situation. I’ve moved on from that now, but it was a challenge. The administration that comes with running your own business is also challenging, especially as I was used to relying on a lot of support functions in a large company.

  • What skills from the PhD do you use now?

I’m not the best salesperson, so I didn’t really use the fruit of my doctorate inside the company. More recently, I put the model I devised on my business’ website, but I didn’t get any clients asking about it, perhaps because it was still too academic. So really the way I use it is for myself, and my own business, and sometimes when I’m coaching I use it to help people think through their decisions.

However, as I open up a new area for my activity (helping communities of ecovillages), I believe I will be able to use my research, twelve years after completing it!

  • What next?

Given the current context I will be orienting my business more towards support for alternative communities such as ecovillages. I’m helping a friend and colleague who teaches at Paris University in his research into the functioning of ecovillages. He will also help me in my research project on the parameters that generate contexts that generate the higher part of human nature. Alongside this, I feel I am at last in place and in a context (alternative lifestyles) where I can put the model I created during my EngD into practice. Linking the use of my model into my vision of cultivating our higher nature gives me the opportunity to put it to work for a really worthwhile purpose at last! There is an association of ecovillages in France, and I’m linked into the central network of people who finance ecovillages, and so the different levels of reflections on decision-making that I can bring to bear could help at that level, as well as within an actual ecovillage. This will be a totally new path for me, but that is where I want to go, and that is where I would use the results of my research to enable these groups of people to make better decisions and to live better together.

  • What are your top tips for our researchers?

If you want to get into a big company, connect your research or your wider skills to a business problem, and connect to a person whose “survival” depends upon resolving that problem. There’s a distinction between addressing a generic business problem, and somebody whose heart and guts are on the line to resolve the problem where your research can help. From the first you’ll get lip service, from the second you’ll get 300% support.

Also, learn from my mistakes: when I first went into consulting, I thought I had the best thing since sliced bread with my doctorate and I tried to convince people to buy my research. But I was so full of what I could contribute, I didn’t listen to what the needs of the potential customers were. You need to connect to the business and personal needs of the people you’ve identified as your potential customers.

  • Any specific tips for researchers in the current uncertain climate?

My doctorate was about decision-making in uncertain and complex environments, so hopefully I have some tips! Firstly, consider targeting smaller businesses. You’ll probably earn less money, but you’ll have more impact. My time in big business was fantastic in many ways, and I’m proud of what I achieved there, but if you want to bring substantive change it’s easier to do it in small companies.

Secondly, have a vision of what you want your contribution to the world to be, and be flexible about how you do it. One of the pieces of research I came across in my doctorate (the Cynefin model, developed by Dave Snowden, formerly of IBM) shows that in a complex and chaotic environment, those who succeed are not those who get their ducks in a row and then follow a predefined plan. Instead Snowden talks about “sensing” what is happening, then acting into the environment, and then adjusting. Use rational analysis, but when all is said and done, rely on your intuition and your sensing of the environment and the path you need to take to achieve your life vision. My research on decision making showed that our major life decisions (such as our life partner) are made intuitively.