Sustainability Leaders as Conveners
After a great panel discussion at NAEM’s annual conference, I overheard a conversation of two attendees. “Unilever is really undertaking some excellent sustainability initiatives. But they’ve got real executive buy-in. I doubt they’d be able to do half the work they’re doing if their leadership team wasn’t so focused,” lamented one sustainability leader. “Exactly,” agreed the other, “In my world, I have to win issue-by-issue. It’s slow and not pretty, but it’s better than nothing.”
Without genuine executive sponsorship, sustainability is approached as a type of compliance checklist, each item debated until proven business-critical or until a business case shows high ROI. There are certainly easier wins linked to clear business cases, certain energy efficiency and water use projects as examples. However, high-impact initiatives in areas like product development and supply chain often feature business cases that don’t have watertight proof of immediate ROI. As a result, these issues are disputed over months and even years, reinforcing the false narrative that sustainability is a “nice-to-have” but not core to business success.
Or worse, our attempts to drive sustainability through the business despite lack of a supportive leadership coalition could provoke the narrative of sustainability as limiting business success. Thus, we become the ‘hall monitors’ of the business; just as primary school hall monitors squash fun with their vigilant hallway supervision, so do we squander business success with our continual push for change.
Never mind that employees love sustainability initiatives or that sustainable companies perform better financially. Without a coalition of executive-level supporters, sustainability and CSR remain siloed, “outsider” functions fighting to be heard issue-by-issue.
So how do sustainability leaders shed the “hall monitor” moniker?
I come from a strategy background, a function that faces the same challenge of needing to drive change by influencing leaders over whom you wield no power. From my experience, driving systemic, transformational change requires more than a set of analyses; it demands the development of a vision that captures the imaginations of your organization’s leaders, the fostering of a personal connection to that vision through engagement and purpose, and the identification of a set of actions that gets your company from today to that winning vision.
The guiding principle to the following methodology is co-creation. Without co-creation, the sociological pressure cooker of office politics can lead to silent (or overt) resistance stymieing results of your sustainability program. With co-creation, the sustainability function pivots from “hall monitor” to “convener.”
Here is a five-step convening process to align leaders on the big picture of the sustainable future, which then drives to action in the areas many have been fighting over for months, or even years.
- Interview and learn. Identify a list of supporters and resisters in your company (including all members of the leadership team), and write up an interview guide to solicit their ideas. A compelling set of questions that asks the interviewees to consider the role of sustainability and company strategy in fresh ways is key to initiating change. Also ask how they see the business and world-at-large unfolding, and how the sustainability strategy should adapt inside of that trajectory. Use your team or partner with your strategy function to hold one-hour interviews with the individuals you identified.
- Build narratives about the future. While you’ll hear many different ideas in these interviews, you’ll be able to group them thematically. Based on interview themes and your own knowledge, write three to five different narratives about the future and your company’s sustainability actions. These can be written as if it is five or 10 years in the future, detailing your company’s sustainability strategy and how it helped the business at large succeed in the projected industry situation as well. Be sure to syndicate with a few of the interviewees prior to the workshop to ensure that they feel their ideas have been heard and integrated.
- Prepare and hold workshop. This workshop can be anywhere from a half day to two days and is the key opportunity for your leadership team to change their mental models about the role of sustainability. In this workshop, the group must explore the different narratives about the future, deciding which futures are most attainable for them and which are most desirable. Sometimes the most attainable are not the most desirable, and vice versa. This could be the first time it’s voiced that the reason for resistance to specific sustainability initiatives isn’t because they don’t want them, it’s because they had never connected how these initiatives could be made possible. Or this could be the first time they see a compelling vision of the future where decarbonized products are in high demand, prompting changes to their long-held paradigms and beliefs.
- Action “no regrets” choices. Now your leaders are aligned on a few different options for what sustainability in your company could look like inside different business contexts and industry futures. Alignment is only useful, however, if it leads to action. The leadership team must now work together to identify how each future comes about over the next five to 10 years (for example, which news events would you be seeing or what new products would be emerging), and the near-term actions your company could take in each of the futures. The result could be that the group decides (and commits resources) to pursue actions that pave the path to the most likely future, or instead pursues actions that make sense across all possible futures. “No regrets” choices could mean researching paths to 100 percent renewable energy, holding joint sustainability and strategy sessions, integrating meaningful sustainability gates into product development processes, etc.
- Revisit the futures as time passes. If you’d hypothesized that, for example, your industry would move toward the “decarbonize operations” future when evidence seems to begin showing that your industry is moving toward the “decarbonize products” future, you’ll have thought about it and see the warning signs in advance. Reconvening and reprioritizing as the world changes becomes a mutually understood necessity rather than evidence of the failure of the sustainability strategy.
There are many options for the future of corporate sustainability, but the “hall monitor” model should be left in the past. This collaborative, multi-option model is one path to depoliticize sustainability, generating the alignment needed to take meaningful action.
Rob Snyder is head of strategy at Anthros Consulting, a firm that uses scenarios to help business, NGO and government leaders build agile strategy when facing disruption and uncertainty. Prior to Anthros Consulting, Rob worked as a strategy consultant for McKinsey & Company. His interests lie at the intersection of sustainability and business strategy. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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