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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.

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