Just How Important is the CEO to Sustainability?

According to a survey conducted last year by Accenture and UN Global Compact, 93 percent of CEOs view sustainability as critical to their company's success. And yet, there is scant evidence that it has been implemented extensively at most companies.

I believe this gap exists because most CEOs do not recognize the leadership role they personally need to play to embed it deep and wide in their organizations. From my research, including interviews with sustainability managers at over a dozen large companies, it's clear that the trickle-down effects of a CEO's words and actions have an enormous impact on the company's pace and degree of transformation into becoming more environmentally responsible.

Why is that? By and large, it's because for most employees, the issue is still not considered relevant to the business, and they do not make a connection between sustainability and the company's mission, or to their own day-to-day jobs. So unless employees -- at every level -- see CEO leadership, they are not going to engage and drive change. (The only exception is at the handful of companies where sustainability is so deeply embedded in the DNA that the CEO can play a secondary role.)

"Disruptive change requires the CEO's active leadership on this issue," said Kathrin Winkler, VP of Sustainability at EMC. "Without the CEO's enthusiastic support and active involvement, our sustainability initiatives would not be nearly as integrated as they are with the business strategies." She credits him for his decision in 2008 to "ratchet up" programs and initiatives that have helped EMC achieve many environmental successes in the last couple of years.

At the very least, CEO leadership can accelerate efforts, according to Bruce Klafter, Managing Director of Sustainability at Applied Materials.

But that does not mean that if the CEO doesn't provide active and visible leadership, nothing can get done. It just doesn't get as far, or go far enough.

Dave Douglas, formerly SVP of Sustainability at Sun Microsystems says that as long as the CEO provides a supportive environment, good things can still happen. But to get it ingrained into the business, "deep CEO leadership is required, particularly if the executive staff is not bought into it."

Richard Goode, Director of Sustainability at Alcatel-Lucent also believes that CEO leadership is required, but to get buy-in from middle management. "They're the ones that really need to engage, because they are the ones that translate vision into action," he said.

In some cases, a sudden CEO leadership vacuum on sustainability can have a profound effect. This was borne out at one company where an impassioned and active CEO was replaced a few years ago with someone who made it a much lower priority. In the words of one of the company's CSR leaders, "sustainability efforts have stalled, and morale has also suffered."