How sustainability leaders hold steady over the long haul

Pioneering a sustainability initiative is a lot like buying a boat. Sooner or later, the realities of maintenance overshadow whatever aspirations first inspired the investment. After the brainstorming sessions, public proclamations and other outpourings of enthusiasm fade, the day comes when you have to face facts: This is going to take work.

Without the resolve to weather a few storms, your sustainability program is at risk of puttering out or blowing up in your face — that is, if it ever gets going in the first place. (In fact, if you are perpetually stuck in launch mode, you may even be ready to unload this sucker onto somebody else.)

Fortunately, the steady erosion of your green dream is not inevitable or even unpredictable. A growing body of research now reveals key traits and processes that differentiate leading sustainability programs from the rest.

McKinsey recently conducted an online survey garnering responses from 3,344 executives representing a spectrum of regions, industries, company sizes, functional specialties and tenures. The "Sustainability's strategic worth" study results show that sustainability leaders are approximately three to five times more likely to:

1) Set aggressive external targets or goals for sustainability initiatives

2) Have a unified sustainability strategy with clearly articulated strategic priorities (no more than five focus areas)

3) Set aggressive internal targets or goals for sustainability initiatives

4) Involve a broad leadership coalition in shaping or co-creating the sustainability strategy, goals and milestones

5) Understand the financial benefits of sustainability within the organization

What's more, reports McKinsey, much larger shares of executives at the leader organizations say their top leaders prioritize sustainability and report higher employee engagement on sustainability at every level, including CEOs, board members and sustainability advisory committees.

According to McKinsey, leading companies also face fewer barriers to realizing value from sustainability because they report better overall performance on the practices that underpin a healthy sustainability organization.

Success stories for smoother sailing

"Building a Culture for Sustainability," a recent book by Jeana Wirtenberg, takes a close look at the sustainability efforts inside nine companies to uncover what sets apart those with staying power. Wirtenberg's case studies offer some rich analysis for understanding the internal and external practices that get results.

Wirtenberg bolsters over 100 best practices with specific examples and cross references them into categories including people, community, customers, planet, supply chain and profit. Here's a snapshot of lessons learned at the end of each chapter:

  • Changing culture is not a "one size fits all" effort, and any change-management endeavor must start with an understanding of the company's unique culture.
  • Align sustainability with and embed it in everything you're doing; it's not a separate set of activities.
  • Take a top-down and bottom-up approach. Translate sustainable behavior into business practices. Make middle management accountable for business objectives.
  • Practice what you preach. This is particularly critical in the professional services industry.
  • Engage with all your stakeholders up front and listen. Address stakeholder concerns head-on and don't sweep issues under the rug.
  • In branding, don't make sustainability campaign-specific. Rather, have it woven and incorporated holistically into your culture and your brand.
  • Ensure key performance indicators (KPIs) are in place.

(For a deep dive into sustainability programs from Ingersoll Rand, Sanofi and Wyndham, read exclusive excerpts from Wirtenberg on EarthPeople Media.)

Turning your battleships

As Wirtenberg and other experts attest, there is still no single template for companies to follow. Codification of activities is slowing occurring in all functional areas, but champions are vital for putting tools into practice.

"To truly embed CSR within an organization requires engaging the people inside the organization," said John Muros, an industrial-organization psychologist with AT&T.

Muros emphasized the importance of talent management activities in creating a robust, comprehensive program. These activities run the gamut from designing workplaces and recruiting to evaluating, on-boarding, training and engagement.

"CSR efforts that are executed without engaging in the full spectrum of talent management activities run the risk of ending up as notable, but still peripheral, initiatives, at best, or transparently inauthentic public relations ploys, at worst," he said.

Muros contributed to "Managing Human Resources for Environmental Sustainability," a prodigious volume of qualitative and quantitative research that goes deep into methods for embedding sustainability into human resources. Unfortunately, HR practitioners are leaving much of it on the table (if the research is reaching them at all) due to the fact that many of them lack a strategic role or voice in their organizations.

Managers that expound on the "triple bottom line" while failing to engage people are setting their programs up for mediocrity. Successful programs require an authoritative champion, a motivated interdisciplinary team, and an appreciation for process. Green stewards must learn to embed, not just bolt on, sustainability into the organizational culture in order to get the buy-in and returns necessary to sustain their programs for the long haul.

Top image of ship's wheel by Paul Fleet via Shutterstock.