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Executing Your Sustainability Strategy: Three Critical Steps

So you have completed your corporate sustainability strategy. Now what? Will your company take a collective deep breath and jump into execution? If you are like many other well-meaning companies, you will find that the presentation of the strategy is less than half the battle.  Once the strategy is complete, the challenge becomes how to implement a line of attack that is flexible enough to adjust to the constantly evolving sustainability environment.

An organizational climate conducive to delivering a sound sustainability strategy isn’t necessarily the same as the one that enables it to succeed.  On the one hand, strategy development tends to be a dispassionate exercise carried out by a few top leaders. It relies on clear-headed and logical analysis of data and context. On the other hand, execution of that strategy depends on a much broader base of support for hitting targets that don’t stand still. It is rooted in the messy reality of attitudes, perceptions, and mental set towards the way things get done. No wonder companies continue to struggle with the enormous challenge of closing the gap between their carefully crafted plans and actually implementing them.

Corporations are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon in record numbers. For example, Paul Baier, the vice president of sustainability consulting at Groom Energy, refers to the growth in sustainability-related reporting as stunning. Moreover, over the next few years, even more companies are likely to turn their attention to the development of sustainability strategies since shareholders are increasing their pressure on boards to address social and environmental risks, according to a recent study released by Ernst and Young.

However, in spite of the continuous uptick in sustainability-related activity, the spoiler in the good news is the gap between corporate sustainability strategies and successful execution, according to Accenture’s Peter Lacy and Arnaud Haines. Due to highly uncertain conditions and rapid changes in the sustainability context, even the most sensible strategies can collapse with astounding speed. Successful implementation of sustainability strategies requires organizations to be flexible and agile.

How can you ensure that your organization is up to the task? For starters, take the following three critical steps to create the right climate for success:

1.     Communicate the expectation that everyone should challenge the status quo

2.     Encourage and reward innovation

3.     Allow intelligent failures and learn from them

Needless to say, all of these steps are interrelated. When people challenge the status quo, they are more likely to innovate. Innovation thrives when companies encourage people to take some risks and experiment. Of course, risk-taking can lead to some failures. The key is to take a measured approach to the experimentation so that the consequences of the inevitable missteps are confined.  The path to success is to learn from the failures and apply the lessons toward future success. United Parcel Service (UPS) is a company whose success with sustainability is built on those three critical steps, and that is precisely the strategy they have been implementing.

Lynnette McIntire, Director of Global Reputation Management for UPS, says that the company leaders encourage each person to take an “inside out and an outside in” approach. She explains that everyone is expected to challenge the status quo by scanning the outside world. They are expected to look for the trends and events that might affect the company.

Once someone spots a trend, it is up to that person to get the attention of those in the company who can address the implications often through experimentation and innovation. Scott Wicker, Chief Sustainability Officer for UPS, describes the culture as “constructively dissatisfied.” He attributes the foundation of this culture to a speech made by their founder, Jim Casey, in 1956. Casey described the culture he desired for the company as one composed of inquiring minds interested in improving what is bad, rather than crowing out what is good. He coined the phrase “constructively dissatisfied.”

Scott believes that this climate of challenging the status quo and innovating accounts for the success of UPS in achieving results. He offers an example. UPS is always looking for new ways to reduce its carbon footprint. Recently they announced the test of a vehicle made of composite materials including plastic versus aluminum. The trucks are lighter, and therefore should require less fuel. As with many of its innovations, UPS is willing to take a risk in testing this new vehicle. Wicker describes this experiment as uncharted territory for the transportation industry. He says they hope to get results that can affect future purchase decisions. UPS takes a “piloting” line of attack to experimentation in order to drive sustainability-related innovation faster. This approach mitigates the effects of failures and allows them to learn. McIntire says their contained, piloting approach allows them to move products through the pipeline at lightening speed. The UPS story points to its culture as the key to their closing the strategy/execution gap.

Of course one might argue that this phenomenon is unique to UPS. “Not so,” says Cathy Edens, VP of Client Services with Paladino, a sustainability and green building consulting firm based in Seattle, Washington. She maintains that the ability to innovate successfully is a major predictor of how well a company will (or won’t) execute its sustainability strategy. She cites many companies to prove the point that the right climate is necessary for enabling both. She offers the example of Verizon’s green building program. The company asks its workforce to consider ways in which green buildings can be better buildings. As part of the process, managers in the field are trained on how to develop sustainable retail locations. And people throughout the company become more educated about ‘green’ practices. The program has become a springboard for change. All are challenged to think about other ways that they can challenge the status quo and innovate towards more sustainable practices.

Whether you have completed your sustainability strategy or are in the early stages of development, it is never too early to prepare for its execution. Take the three steps to create a climate that will increase your flexibility and agility as an organization and your chances for successful execution of strategy will increase exponentially.

Kathy Miller
Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management  founded in 1980.  In addition to managing the company, she continues to remain active in assisting client organizations in assessing and addressing the organizational culture and leadership requirements for executing sustainability strategy.  She has delivered services to over 100 public and private sector companies. Dr. Miller’s client list includes organizations such as IBM, Toyota, BC Hydro, Brown -Forman, General Electric, Ashland Chemical, Ernst and Young, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kindred Health Care.
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3 thoughts on “Executing Your Sustainability Strategy: Three Critical Steps

  1. Great article. I agree wholeheartedly that translating strategy into successful tactical actions is fraught with challenges in most companies. If change is attempted too broadly and quickly, the opportunities for disappointment are large. But, starting the sustainability journey with some “quick wins” and piloting larger changes (as UPS has done) can go a long way to help an organization get on board and gain momentum. I would add that solid project management for these initiatives is key to ensuring success.

  2. Penn State University is currently developing a Strategic Plan for Sustainability for its over 20 locations and nearly 130,000 students, faculty, and staff. When we are finished we know that is when the real work will continue and that is why we are thinking NOW of what execution will require and being sure to engage the implementers early and often through individual meetings, open forums, etc. Also we know implementation will require everyone so we are taking unprecedented steps to ensure broad input using in-person events and online strategies such as web forms and social media. It is key to not just gather this information but have a strategy for using it and making sure people know that we heard them.

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