Building Success Into The Firm’s Sustainability Efforts – By Making Sustainability Everyone’s Responsibility

Lately, we’ve been participating in conferences where CEOs and other senior managers have been on the lectern describing their companies’ sustainability journeys – the why, how, challenges and positive outcomes.
Most presenters are the leaders in brand marketing who know that the stakes are higher now, in terms of both investor and customer expectations.  They know that the customer-facing company that wants competitive market positioning will demonstrate greater corporate responsibility and strive to be more sustainable.

One of the common threads that we hear in these presentations is the key role that employees play in making corporate “sustainability” or “responsibility” or “citizenship” programs more successful.  There are typically key management metrics applied, ranging from the simple-to-the-sophisticated.  Employee volunteer hours.  Return on these efforts(equivalent to dollar amounts donated in some cases).  Employee retention and customer loyalty rates. Investor response.

And for a few enterprises, the strategic approach of alignment of effort and incentive – building recognition and rewarding of the employee contributions to the positive outcomes (small today but appears to be a growing practice for savvy leaders).

Encouraging and organizing employee volunteering is often among the core activities when a company sets out on the sustainability journey – it’s a great internal morale builder and positive way to put the brand forward doing something that benefits society.

CB Bhattacharya writing in the Harvard Business Review shares his experiences gained in interviews with CEOs and C-suite execs, middle managers and “shop floor” workers in 25-plus companies to understand “why most companies fail to embed sustainability in their business models and what drives success among the handful that do.”

Hint:  it is about creating and promoting “ownership” – successful companies create conditions for stakeholders to “own” sustainability. 

Bhattacharya is H.J. Zoffer Chair of Sustainability and Ethics as the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. He’s developed a three-phase model to help companies understand how to move beyond rhetoric and take ownership of sustainability (walking-the-talk).These are incubation, launching and entrenching.  These steps help to build a feeling of ownership (among employees) and “de-mystify” the internal stakeholders’ contributions to the overall corporate effort.

He offers examples citing such firms as BASF and its “Sustainability Solution Steering”; ING and the “sustainable transitions” and the application in real estate and clean technology; Old Mutual and workshops to show how employees are changing lives through their day jobs.

The advice shared from Unilever is not to create a “little department” for sustainability but to mainstream the efforts into all countries, brands, and divisions.  Example: the Unilever R&D and marketing departments work to create and promote products that serve business and society.

Ringing in our ears as we write this:  BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent “CEO-to-CEO” letter calling on corporate leaders in which his company invests to ensure that the company fulfills a “social purpose!”  Almost every one of the corporate honchos we’ve heard embeds the phrase in their story-telling now.  That’s good news, we would say.

There’s very helpful advice for corporate leaders in the HBR article that is our Top Story, whether the enterprise is starting out on the journey, cautiously advancing one foot at a time, or well along in the journey and looking to stay way ahead of its peers.  As CB Bhattacharya (who is writing a book on the subject) observes:  “Establishing [employee] ownership prevents the feeling that that sustainability is someone else’s problem to manage.”

This Week’s Top Story

How to Make Sustainability Every Employee’s Responsibility 
(Monday – February 26, 2018) Source: Harvard Business Review – Do you believe that sustainability is important for your company, but that it’s “someone else’s problem”? You aren’t alone: While most organizations talk the talk of sustainability — doing things such as integrating environmental…

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