Does Sustainability Transformation Start with the Right Corporate Culture?
Several thousand new college graduates will be joining Infosys this year. Just like I did more than 15 years back, they will go through a structured induction process where they will learn about our core values codified as C.L.I.F.E. Also, just like it did then, it will sound like a bunch of corporate mumbo-jumbo to these recruits. Not until a few years later did I realize how impressionable I was and that I had actually completely internalized these values. It was my first real job and I had never known any other way of working. While it may not have happened on day one, I saw these core values demonstrated in daily decisions by my managers and peers. That’s what corporate culture is all about. Before I knew it, I was practicing and preaching these values myself.
When we decided to embark on a sustainability journey a few years back, it was not a big cultural change for us. Engaging our extended set of stakeholders has been a practice in our company ever since it was formed. Reaching out to stakeholders for our first materiality assessment was second nature; it was just an extension of what we had already believed and practiced. We found ways to address sustainability performance goals through everyday actions. For example, those who have been in rush hour traffic in a big Indian city would understand when I say that use of company or public transport was not just for reducing the carbon footprint, but that it just a more efficient solution. Electricity is very unpredictable (remember this July when 620 million were out of power for 2 days in northern and eastern India). When the Pocharam SDB-1 building in Hyderabad implemented radiant cooling reducing energy consumption by a third, it was as much with a goal of reducing our risk exposure as it was to further our sustainability initiatives.
Many aspects of a “Sustainable Organization” are already in the cultural fabric of our company. It just needed a specific goal, strategy and an organizational structure to implement it, and we were on our way. But not every company would start at the same footing.
Can companies that do not already have a culture conducive to foster sustainability transform their culture?
The good news: Yes – companies can make large transformational changes. Business literature is filled with success stories of large organizations making fairly intrusive changes in their corporate culture. Remember the time when IBM thought it was too good to fail, that its customers needed it more than it needed them? You could read Louis Gerstner’s book on how he was able to reverse that culture and getting IBM back in the lime light. You could also read about how Robert McNamara changed the attitude of the World Bank in the 13 years he spent at its helm. He transformed it into a large modern organization increasing the overall lending to more than 10 times what it had been before.
The not-so-good news: Depending on where you are in your organization, the change can be time consuming and painful. Like all other changes, it would require patience and courage.
But it can be done.
There are many publications and examples available on how to change a corporate culture. Changing it for the sake of sustainability is no different. I remember reading an HBR article by Roger Martin called Changing the Mind of the Corporation. One could also refer to Michael Hyatt’s blog on Intentional Leadership where he has an article titled How Do You Change Organizational Culture? These are essentially similar principles that deal with the complexity of large organizational changes. This is what it would look like when these principles are implemented for the changes required for sustainability:
- Prepare. Sustainability is a transformation for many. Maybe a slow evolutionary transformation, but a transformation nonetheless. You must decide whether it is something you really want to do for the right reasons, and not just for a PR opportunity. You must have the courage to identify the shortcomings of your current culture, the vision of what it should be in the future and the ability to make a high level “business case” for the required change.
- Sell. Work out the business value of the change, why it is needed, and get a buy-in from the executive leadership. These executives have a way of sniffing out initiatives of real value and keeping you honest. You may face a lot of push back at first – but have the courage to persevere. If you really believe this is the right way to move forward, then all these pushbacks should result in reworking the business case. Executive buy-in will also help you affect the change from the top and align it with the firm’s core strategy.
- Codify. Define the new state for what you want to organization to be in terms of vision, mission and a set of values. Don’t be afraid of calling out what you mean by ‘bad behavior’. Don’t be afraid of questioning accepted norms. Make a plan on how you will affect this change. And most importantly, define a set of S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals.
- Communicate, Communicate and Communicate. Think like a marketing professional. Communicate through all the channels you can think of. Teach the new recruits through the induction program. Reach out to them even before they join by putting these in the careers section of your website. Have a cascading discussion item in staff meetings where every manager discusses these changes with their direct reports and asks them to talk to their direct reports. Communicate this to the outside world – let your customers, investors and other stakeholders know what you believe in. Don’t oversell, or ‘green-wash’. It is okay to say that you are not there yet, but that you have a very specific plan (refer Step 3) to achieve your goal. You may face push back at this stage as well. Some employees, investors or even customers may not necessarily jump on the green bus at the same time you do. But that’s okay. If you believe this is the right way for the future and you do the due diligence to show why you believe it, it is just a matter of time that everyone will realize the value of this journey.
- Grease. Reduce the barriers for the people to change. You may look at investing in technology. There is no point in explaining the values of video conferencing as a replacement of travelling long distances and then be faced with poor network bandwidth that pushes people away from using this technology. Remember, the first impressions would be hard to change. Also look at making innovative changes that make it “cool to be green”. For example, rather than moving from a paper-based process to an electronic process, think about creating an application in a tablet, rather than just on a computer. Reward good behavior through various incentive schemes, games and programs. Remember, if you’re thinking like a marketing professional, you are designing your green programs so that they stand out. The last thing you want your employees to think of this initiative as “just another corporate fad that will eventually die”.
- Evaluate. As pointed out before, the complexity of the change will depend on where you are now and how different it is from your vision of a sustainable corporation. The change may be hard and time consuming. Have patience. Build systems that would record the company performance against the S.M.A.R.T. goals you had set. Periodically evaluate your progress. You may need to tweak your plan as you go along. Talk to industry peers and experts and learn from their successes and failures.
Some companies will transform easily because they have the embedded culture required to change. Others will take some more time to go through the steps of transformation. So long as these companies believe in the end goal, they will be able to make this change to a better and more sustainable future, and maybe even a business school case study on successful transformations!
Shamik Mitra is a sustainability professional working with Infosys (www.infosys.com). Prior to being part of its sustainability business practice, Shamik worked with a number of US utility companies. Now as a sustainability professional, Shamik researches and writes about sustainability transformation strategies for companies.
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