The Reshaping Industry of Waste Management: How Cleanaway CEO Vik Bansal Leads Through Times of Change

By Sachin Wason

No matter what sector or industry of business, the value of good leadership in any organization cannot be understated. Leaders are at the helm of their company’s ship, inspiring employees and championing growth culture, simultaneously managing the day-to-day while also making far-reaching decisions that affect the welfare of their stakeholders – i.e. their employees, investors, and communities. Therefore, it goes without saying that while sound leadership is always at the core of a successful business, in no time is it more important than when a business or industry at large is going through times of change. Change is difficult, and whether positive or negative, it’s a challenging time for any organization to navigate. 

While most leaders are aware of the reality of ongoing change, few are prepared to lead in the context of significant, unrelenting change. Often when external forces are bringing about change in an industry, leaders get caught up in the struggle of managing the business to adequately adapt to these changes and can end up neglecting the needs of their people, but if leaders don’t establish an effective balance between business and people priorities, they can destabilize the organizational culture and erode trust, generating fear and skepticism among employees at a time when a loyal, productive, enthusiastic workforce is essential for success.

So how can leaders successfully navigate times of change while keeping all of their stakeholders happy, making the tough decision without losing sight of the emotions and concerns of employees? They must practice a transformational approach to leadership, focused on authenticity and building trust. When the focus is placed on these measures, a leader is better able to deal with change from all angles, whether that be structural, human, or environmental. Truly authentic leaders are grounded in their morals, and are therefore able to uphold an organization’s core values in the midst of change. They ensure their followers have confidence and assurance in their ability to consistently exhibit ethical behaviors, and maintain integrity when the leader’s everyday words and actions reinforce the core values.

One sector that has seen considerable calls for change of the last decade is the waste industry. Whether from the media or from regulators, as the world becomes increasingly aware of the environmental effects of the way in which we process waste, calls have been made for change across the board, from consumers to companies to policies. Added to this is the recent change in global markets that have shaken the recycling industry, forcing nations across the world to rethink the ways in which they treat their own waste. For Vik Bansal, CEO of the Australian waste management company Cleanaway, he sees this increased scrutiny as a necessary and important catalyst for long-term positive social change. With a clear idea of not only how they will move forward in an industry that is on the precipice of great change and innovation, but also why the change is necessary, Bansal lives the values he advocates and sets the pace by communicating clear expectations.

Prior to 2017, China was the largest global importer of recyclable materials in the world. As the dominant force in the global manufacturing industry, for many years they welcomed the import of paper and plastics while other countries were happy to have found a cheap and easy way to get rid of their waste. As a result, many countries failed to sufficiently invest in creating infrastructure for their own circular economy, choosing instead the affordability and convenience of skipping the sorting process and simply bundling and shipping their waste resources away. However, as the middle class in China grew and consumers became more Western-influenced they sought to replace imported materials with recycled materials collected within their own domestic market, and in 2017 announced that they were putting into process a plan that would see the ban of importing a large number of papers and plastic, while also placing stricter cleanliness and sorting guidelines on the materials they would continue to accept. Other secondary waste industry importers such as India and Malaysia initially picked up the slack, but soon became overwhelmed by the volume and began implementing their own waste import bans.

With this shakeup of the global recycling industry, many countries were left scrambling to try and quickly come up with a solution to their (literally) mounting waste problem. For Australia, which creates approximately 3.4 million tonnes of waste in plastics alone each year, their recycling rate for that plastic was less than ten percent in 2017-2018. The 193 material recovery facilities currently active in Australia are not sufficient to meet their needs, but thanks to a strong policy put in place by the government entitled the National Waste Policy Action Plan, they anticipate reaching their target of an eighty percent national resource recovery by the year 2030. The action plan involves a massive cooperation between the Australian government, manufacturers and retailers, and the waste management industry. “There is no other time in the history of the waste management and resource recovery industry where there has been so much change in such a small period of time,” said Bansal. As CEO of the largest waste management company in the country, he is positioned at the forefront of creating lasting change for his industry. Below are some of the ways in which leaders can learn from Bansal and his transformational approach to leadership in times of change.

Have a clear vision and inspire others to follow it.

The mission statement of Cleanaway is “making a sustainable future possible” and Bansal ensures that everybody from the executives directly under him to those working in their collection vehicles or processing facilities know that this is the compelling vision for what the future of their company and industry should look like. Through a clear vision, not only does everybody understand the benefits of changing to meet the new demands of the world, but also helps them understand that they all play a pivotal role in creating the change that needs to happen. Successful leaders anticipate, understand and address concerns in order to inspire support of change rather than resistance or fear of it. By taking a human approach, they can generate the necessary buy-in and support for change. “I am a firm believer that in times like this it’s more important than ever to understand why we do what we do,” said Bansal. “Our mission ‘to make a sustainable future possible’ remains at the core of who we are. It drives not only what we do – but more importantly, how we do it.”

Identify and define the strategic plan.

Once the vision behind the change initiative can be seen, the next step in leadership through change is bringing the vision alive through a strategic plan. The plan must clearly define expectations for not only identifying practical matters such as who will be responsible for what, but also what the timeline should be that will guide the change. This way, individuals may understand the big-picture implications of the changes as well as the role they will play in them. “ We know that it is only as a strong, ethical business, that we will be able to help influence the change that Australia needs to make,” said Bansal. For Cleanaway, a 10-year road map entitled “Footprint 2025” spearheaded by Bansal was developed to ensure that they would have the right infrastructure in the right places to deal sustainability with the waste Australia generates.

Keep communication clear and effective. 

One of the most critical tasks in times of change is maintaining energy, momentum, and productivity. Having a sense of urgency is an important element of the revitalization process and for moving toward the desired outcomes. That is why it is imperative that communication is kept open throughout the company. As a leader, transparency is a vital aspect of strong leadership and communication must flow both from the top down and back up again. Creating an open and comfortable culture is critical to receiving useful and insightful feedback not only from employees, but other stakeholders such as investors. Case in point, Cleanaway recently released their first independent sustainability report. Within the document, Bansal showed his commitment to transparency by not only highlighting the many achievements and steps taken towards meeting sustainable goals and standards, but also indicated areas where there was still room for improvement.

Provide consistent support. 

An effective leader encourages others and celebrates individual and team accomplishments, and makes a conscious effort to provide extra support and guidance during times of change. It is important to recognize that people adapt to change in different ways, with some needing additional training while others may require more time to meet new expectations. By encouraging collaboration and building trust within a company, a leader can positively influence a group’s ethical climate and moral action, and when a leader enables others to act, they feel better about themselves and their contributions to the greater good. “As Australia’s leading integrated waste management company, which owns and operates a substantial portfolio of prized infrastructure, we want to make a positive impact,” said Bansal. “We are, and always will be, stronger together.” 

Sustain the momentum long-term.

Sustainable change takes time, so successful change leadership requires maintaining energy and motivation throughout the initiative. To achieve this, leaders can ensure that the mission or ethos of their vision is one that is constantly on the top of everybody’s mind within the company. Additionally, providing data or metrics showing progress can help individuals see their effort is paying off. In the sustainability report created by Vik Bansal, they revealed that Cleanaway was able to recover over 435,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard, 19,000 tonnes of plastic, and 25,000 tonnes of steel and aluminum in 2019, along with generating enough renewable energy to power around 24,000 average homes. These kinds of victories deserve to be shared, so that energy and commitment to change can be maintained. 

Change is an inescapable part of life, and every industry can expect to go through it at some point. Within the past year in particular, the coronavirus pandemic has caused everything from real estate to hospitality to become turned over on its head, so the question is not whether or not you will face change, but how you will deal with it when it inevitably occurs within your sector. For strong leaders like Vik Bansal, this means more than just creating new processes and incorporating them into daily workflows. It is about inspiring belief and confidence in the stakeholders of Cleanaway that they all can and should embrace something new.

Connect with Vik Bansal on Medium and TopioNetworks.


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