When it comes to sustainable business, we find that many organizations have trouble moving from a theoretical understanding of why sustainability should be on their business agenda to what it should look like in practical terms.
Often this lack of clarity leads to the creation of a small Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team or a Corporate Sustainability Officer (CSO) role to ‘handle’ sustainability without the requisite mandate to build it into the foundations of the business.
However well-meant they are, from our experience with organizations of various sizes, we believe that such efforts are doomed to fail. Without a cross-organizational buy-in from the start, an organization cannot build a well-framed sustainability set-up and will likely fail in its intentions to bring about a sustainable business strategy.
Our experience working with diverse management teams has enabled insights into what really works when it comes to taking sustainability off the drawing board and bringing it into the business. The following four areas of practice will enable your business to achieve its sustainability agenda and drive it further from the get-go.
1. Sustainability and Leadership. It has become a truism to say that sustainability starts at the top but there is no doubting it; in firm after firm, we see the difference it makes. Simply put, somebody at the top –preferably the CEO – has to carry the sustainability flag. We have found that those CEOs who have had a first-hand experience with social and environmental issues in their childhood or during their career have a tendency to be more courageous on sustainability than those who do it because they are afraid of losing their license to operate.
“I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am an activist,” said Schneider-Electric’s CEO Jean Pascal Tricoire. No doubt, his earlier experiences with Schneider-Electric in South Africa and China in the 1980s have played an influential role in that development towards action-based leadership.
But CEOs have other responsibilities and, therefore, we have observed that they often need a change maker who is the full-time driving force behind the sustainability effort. More often that not, this key role is filled internally by an executive who knows the business well and is considered as an insider.
2. Sustainability and purpose. This may be one of the first tasks that the CEO should carry out in the sustainability domain. Without a coherent purpose around sustainability, we often find that bold moves cannot be made in the business. Defining where you want to go; why you want to go there; and which objectives you want to pursue is key to establishing a set of purposeful core objectives.
The corporate purpose should encompass sustainability rather than solely the bottom line and there must be a genuine willingness to transform the business model if necessary. Ask what your business’s existing role is in the world and how it can be transformed into something more purposeful that addresses current problems. Your starting point should be to return to the firm’s DNA and to the fundamental job that its customers entrust it to perform.