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.”