4 steps for starting a sustainable revolution in your company

This article was first published at MIT Sloan Management Review and is reprinted with permission.

The insurgent sustainability director's goal is to empower allies to link social intelligence with their job responsibilities and the company's overall sustainability strategy. This begins by encouraging functional managers to relate with key constituencies and harvest their own functionally relevant social intelligence.

As this occurs, CSR directors help employees translate their gathered intelligence into business insights that are connected to and aligned with the company's strategy and the functional manager's responsibilities. The CSR director then helps incubate sustainability-informed projects that create value for both the business and the identified constituencies. Finally, CSR directors ensure that the value created becomes core to the business by acculturating the organization to the new values and associated management processes.

1. Relate

"Relate" is the process used to obtain social intelligence and is something that your people already do. The goal of insurgent CSR directors is to inspire employees to identify social intelligence that will enhance the company's performance and support its CSR goals.

Encouraging community volunteerism is a common way to generate social insights. For instance, Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm Beverage Company (FIFCO) is the region's largest producer of beer and soft drinks. This makes it a major consumer of fresh water — a demand that potentially could pit the company against local communities also dependent on local water supplies. To help employees understand these water demands (and the user communities), CSR managers engaged employees in community projects focused on restoring watersheds serving indigenous communities. In one such project, an army of 178 blue-shirted employees waded through the Aqueduct Gavilán Canta river system to ensure the provision of clean water for the indigenous peoples of Talamanca. Florida managers believe this direct interaction between employees, communities and shared resources dramatically enhances social intelligence.

Burt's Bees, a natural personal-care products company, finds volunteerism so valuable for relating that it has made it mandatory for all employees. Using the euphemism "non-optional," Burt's even has shut down production so its 400 or so employees could engage in projects such as building playgrounds and affordable homes for local communities. Other projects tie into the company's production needs, including volunteer efforts to protect eponymous bee populations from colony collapse disorder.

Walmart has taken an alternative approach to helping employees relate. In 2007, the company created the voluntary Personal Sustainability Projects program, which encourages associates to adopt practices that benefit their communities, their families and themselves. PSPs can be nearly anything, but must be personal and involve the local community. Ranging from commitments to recycle to recruiting family and friends to get out and exercise, the PSP program is employee-led, with associates recruiting and training others.

Image by Jerry Kirkhart via Flickr.

Programs such as these can enhance employees' natural tendency to relate, but do so in ways that are directly relevant to the company's social agenda. As employees gain greater social intelligence, insurgent CSR directors then help them see their application to their business responsibilities.

2. Translate

While research has shown that employees value volunteer opportunities offered by their companies, CSR directors want to see the social intelligence accumulated by these relating activities put to work for the organization. They therefore help translate a functional manager's new social intelligence and align it with the company's overall CSR efforts. To do so, insurgent sustainability managers have to understand the goals of their colleagues and help them see the benefits of implementing sustainability initiatives in their functional areas.

Translating sustainability into a value proposition that functional managers understand requires command of the local "sustainability dialect" that's appropriate for different functional areas such as finance, sales and logistics. Learning the different sustainability dialects of each functional area requires a general management understanding of the business functions, as well as the local organizational culture specific to each company. It also requires a deep understanding of how sustainability fits into the function's goals, incentive structures and capabilities.

The next post will explore the sustainability dialects for business functions in more depth. For now, recognize that it is the sustainability insurgent's responsibility to explain the potential for value creation in terms that a potential ally can understand and link that value to the overall goals of the company.

3. Incubate

To have an impact, the social intelligence must be applied, so the next task is to incubate sustainability projects within the company. Insurgent sustainability directors do so by turning their office into a "social intrapreneurship" incubator, working with functional mangers to define and secure the required resources needed for a project. As the effort advances, CSR directors monitor the progress and provides support as needed.

One of the most important roles for the sustainability officer is to provide cover for the functional managers. While many sustainability initiatives are well known and proven, they still come with some level of risk. Sustainability directors need to insulate functional managers so that they feel free to innovate and are not paralyzed by the potential consequences of failure. They have to have permission to fail; if not, they'll never try. Focusing on quick wins can create the confidence needed to move to the next level.

Image by Rusty Clark via Flickr.An example of incubation is the leading Spanish bank BBVA's reliance on workshops to share inspirational examples of innovative CSR initiatives with managers. Enthused participants are then encouraged to apply their social intelligence to their functional responsibilities and develop their own CSR initiative. After the program, participants work to implement their initiatives with the help of the CSR director's office. In one instance, the workshop motivated sales managers to think about their contracts with retail customers. They soon recognized that complex legal language in banking contracts made it difficult for customers to understand agreement. This social insight inspired the managers to redraft company agreements in plain language so that the mutual commitments would be clear to customers.

Once social intelligence is unleashed, ideas can come from anywhere. Take Darryl Meyers, an associate at a Walmart store in Burlington, N.C. Going about his duties, Meyers noticed a constant 24-hour glow emanating from the store break rooms — a light he found coming from soda machines, which were left on permanently. To Meyers, who had been inspired by Walmart's PSP program, this seemed a waste, so he suggested that the company turn off the lights. This simple suggestion incubated an initiative that resulted in $1 million in annual savings to Walmart.

4. Acculturate

Incubated successes will encourage more applications of social intelligence and the CSR director's responsibility becomes one of identifying and nurturing ideas wherever they spring from. But a larger task is at work. Insurgent CSR directors also need to embed sustainability into the company's core if it is to stick. I call this final process acculturation, a practice that embeds CSR values into the company's DNA. There are two key aspects of acculturation: corporate culture and business processes.

The term du jour for CSR is creating "shared value" for the company and society. However, the task for insurgent CSR directors is to move the company from "shared value" to "shared values." By acculturating the organization to the values inherent in the CSR initiatives, social intelligence becomes an embedded reflex and part of the organizational culture.

Traditional managers often underestimate the worth of shared organizational values. Much of management theory assumes that employees are inherently lazy and need to be financially incentivized and monitored by superiors. But all great social change is a result of a group of people incentivized not by financial reward, but by a shared vision about the value of their collective endeavor. Sustainability directors help the company to tap into the strength of shared values.

Shari Arison, owner of the Arison Group of companies in Israel, is actively using values to unify and energize the entire group. A diverse collection of industrial, financial and even non-profit organizations, the Arison Group is joined in a collective effort to succeed financially but also socially. One example is "Good Deeds Day," which inspires employees and Israelis across the country to volunteer. In collectively fostering shared value, Arison Group's shared values become an important motivational and unifying driver.

The other part of acculturation is embedding sustainability into the company's business processes, routines and planning. This takes a different form in each functional area. For the HR function, it maybe the inclusion of sustainability in recruiting and new employee on-boarding. In finance, it might be enterprise risk management and reporting. For manufacturing, it could be supply-chain standards and design for environment protocols.

The end game of the CSR insurgency is the acculturation of shared values that ingrains responsibility into the organizational fabric and builds sustainability into the modus operandi of daily business. The insurgency is over when the sustainability function and its leadership are no longer needed.

Shatter image by Iaroslav Neliubov via Shutterstock.