Jeff is CEO and a board member at JMJ, a global culture transformation consulting firm headquartered in Austin, Texas.
As business leaders, we’re all feeling the internal and external pressure to deliver on our corporate sustainability strategies. I’ve been in business long enough to know that these kinds of organizational shifts rarely happen without culture change. Take safety for example, not that many years ago it was viewed as a departmental role, something that was done to people rather than for or with them. In many ways, sustainability is the new safety; everyone’s talking about it, we know we need to do something about it, we want to do something about it—we’re just not always sure what that something is.
Leaders Must Lead, But Culture Must Change Too
By their own admission, leaders don’t always have the know-how to create lasting change. Changing a glossy strategy report or powerful mission statement into a set of values that everyone from the board to your newest recruit can get behind is no small task.
Convincing The Business
Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, described the transition economy as “the greatest commercial opportunity of our time.” So why do many of us find it difficult to make the business case for pursuing a sustainable future? Can sustainability and profitability coexist, or are they mutually exclusive?
Beyond the rhetoric and the good intentions there lies a cold, hard reality: Businesses exist to make a profit. It follows that the best way to persuade your board to take sustainability seriously is to construct a financial business case. That could mean associating sustainable actions with profits and futureproofing the company, highlighting the connection between ESG ratings and investment capital or the ability to attract fresh talent. According to a 2021 survey from global sustainability consultant Anthesis, 53% of the U.K.’s workforce said sustainability is an important factor when choosing a company to work for, with the percentage reaching 67% among Gen Zs.
The bottom line is that if companies fail to become more sustainable, they’ll be worth less money to investors, be less attractive for people to work for and with, and less commercially viable.
Convincing Your People
Designing a sustainability strategy is one thing; creating a sustainability culture is another altogether. Yet to succeed, the two must walk hand in hand. Sure, leadership sets the transformation agenda, but real change isn’t going to happen without buy-in from all your people.
Change doesn’t happen easily or quickly. As leaders, the onus is on us to find practical ways of making sustainability integral to the structure and operation of the business.
Here are six practical steps leaders can take now to help people shift to more sustainable practices:
1. Make the business case. Rather than focusing on the short-term financial impact, consider the long-term repercussions of failure. How will your organization be affected in terms of reputation, ability to attract talent and customers and, ultimately, how will your actions (or inaction) now affect the future of our planet?
2. Measure your sustainability maturity. Carry out a sustainability culture assessment to understand how people across your organization perceive leadership’s commitment and their own role in fulfilling the company’s sustainability pledge. People can spot a fake, so leaders need to act with conviction.
3. Communicate openly and transparently. Authentic belief and commitment from senior leaders are critical if you want others to buy into your sustainability promises. At the same time, leaders who don’t know what they want to achieve create a barrier to the company’s sustainability success.
4. Address people’s concerns. The operations department is likely wondering if the supply chain will change, business development is wondering how customers will react and senior leaders want to know about managing cost and avoiding government penalties. To succeed, you need a shared vision and path forward in a culture where everyone knows their concerns will be listened to and acted on.
5. Create leaders across your organization. Recruit other passionate individuals from across the business as sustainability evangelists. They can communicate the organization’s goals and drivers in a way senior management never could.
6. Set sustainability targets. Everyone across the organization, from the boardroom to entry-level employees, has a part to play in your sustainability agenda, so it follows that everyone should have targets to meet. This could be as simple as encouraging carpooling, implementing recycling or thinking more closely about how and why people travel for work.
The Future Starts Now
While different industries, sectors, national cultures and business models will inevitably have diverse goals, perspectives and even definitions of sustainability, there is no escaping the fact that leaders need to step up and set the culture. If your goal is to adopt sustainability as a value, there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the way that best-in-class safety cultures and practices evolved. Sustainability may once have been a “nice to do” for global players, but it’s become a “must do.” The price of failure is not one any of us is willing to pay.