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3 Essential Steps for Harnessing In-House Talent on Sustainability

<p>There&#39;s much talk of employee engagement, but relatively little understanding about what it takes to hone staff talent and passion to really make sustainability take hold in companies.</p>

Each year provides opportunities to reflect on significant events that occurred during the previous year as well as predict trends to watch in the year ahead. The case with sustainability is no different.

An often cited trend is the role employee engagement plays in helping organizations achieve sustainability goals. However, the interpretation of what employee engagement means can vary. And, the concept might be vague to many sustainability managers who have expertise in environmental sciences, manufacturing or supply chain operations, but may not have experience with large-scale employee based programs.

If employee engagement in sustainability is the emerging trend, then we need to better understand what companies must do to leverage its promise. This article will highlight some of these trends and suggest three essential steps to make it work in your organization.

Employee Engagement -- The Emerging Trend

In its "Annual Sustainability Executive Survey, 2012," Green Research cites employee engagement as one of two top sustainability trends that matter most. It finds, 1) Companies will increase their investment in employee engagement (88 percent), and 2) More focus will be on improving supply chain sustainability (73 percent).

It's no surprise the researchers made these conclusions stating, "Engaged employees make things happen." Employees know where the problems are and how to fix them. The focus for the company is on employees as internal change agents. How to get employees engaged is left open for discussion, a point we'll return to later.

Similarly, a survey by Brighter Planet cites the proliferation of employee engagement as one of its "Top 5" predictions. Besides helping achieve sustainability goals, enlisting people in sustainability efforts improves critical talent metrics such as recruiting, retention and promotion. This perspective extends the employee engagement equation one step further, recognizing the talent management benefits and culture change that can result when companies and employees operate with a sense of shared values and beliefs.

The National Environmental Education Foundation's (NEEF) recent report, "The Engaged Organization: Corporate Employee Environmental Education Survey and Case Study Findings," takes the argument even further, going beyond organizational boundaries, stressing that by engaging employees companies can spark innovation in everyday business, with spillover effects for employees at home and in their communities.

If we read these trends correctly, effective employee engagement strategies can improve internal operations, change corporate culture and contribute to broader ecosystem impacts. All sounds nice, right? It is.

The real question is, "Where to start?" And, "What exactly is employee engagement anyway?" Therein lies the challenge.

Adding Alignment

Wikipedia offers a useful definition of employee engagement -- an "engaged employee" is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests.

We tend to think of sustainability strategy as a series of projects -- around energy efficiency, waste reduction, resource optimization, product, process or service improvements, etc. -- and gloss over the fact that putting sustainability into practice requires people to do the work. If we are to further the organization's interests across these initiatives there clearly needs to be an overt effort to align people with sustainability planning and implementation strategy.

Early sustainability programs may have missed the mark when it came to aligning employee engagement with strategy. Many programs focused on individual concerns through a series of wellness programs, personal sustainability plans and promoting volunteerism, and were not necessarily orchestrated around major challenges facing the firm.  It's the alignment with corporate strategy and operating functions that makes people mobilization a true momentum builder.

To illustrate, consider the plight of sustainability officers and directors. They operate in a highly matrixed capacity and do not have a bullhorn large enough or loud enough to accomplish all they need to. PSP programs may be nice, but the CSO needs more people to scale. And this is where organizational change begins to break down. How do CSOs get widespread participation so that overall efforts begin to take on a momentum of their own?  The goal here, to borrow terminology from Malcolm Gladwell, is to achieve a tipping point of engagement.

Three Steps Going Forward

Rather than random or defocused efforts, companies need new methodologies, guidelines and best practices to align people around broad scale sustainability issues. There are three components to this strategy:

1.    Provide role-based training,
2.    Leverage and nurture emerging 'green team' behaviors, and
3.    Build sustainability into the talent strategy and competency model of the company.

Each of these is connected; they may even overlap. But, there is a logical sequence to building strong organizational alignment as outlined below.

1. Role-based Training

Like any other change management initiative, mobilizing employees around sustainability starts with basic awareness building and training. Training that helps people learn key concepts about sustainability and how it applies to business operations, builds a common language and base of understanding across the organization.  It also helps overcome internal barriers and 'pockets of resistance' that traditionally impede progress.

Companies like P&G have already initiated programs to train its people. They've identified key roles -- marketing, R&D, product teams, and supply chain personnel -- and have developed role-based learning solutions for each. Making learning role-based makes sustainability applicable to the business and specific job functions, thereby linking it to the company's operating strategy, as well as tapping into strongly felt employee values and beliefs.

2. Align Green Teams

Employee-driven green teams are emerging as self-forming communities of practice inspired by a common passion around sustainability.  Unfortunately, many efforts are fragmented, disorganized and frequently fail to take hold. Some green team proponents seek to operate under the radar of HR and other corporate entities, wrongly thinking that clandestine operations are the way to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Green teams can contribute to new ideas, new innovations, pilot new products or services, find ways to be more efficient and reduce costs. Green teams can become a competitive differentiator in attracting and retaining top talent. They also need to become more aligned with corporate strategic interests.

The field of organizational design offers guidelines and disciplines around what is broadly known as Communities of Practice (of which green teams are clearly a part) to help set up, nurture, support and expand the impact of strategically aligned communities. Companies like eBay and Autodesk have realigned green team initiatives to be more strategic and better supported, resulting in far greater participation and upscaled results.

3. Build Sustainability into Talent Strategy

There are important links between this emerging behavior, results, and the participation it encourages. These behaviors should be recognized and rewarded as core business competencies and encouraged in company culture and talent management practices.

Whenever certain desired skills or behavioral outcomes are mapped into a competency framework, HR and Talent leaders start to look for ways to train and develop these competencies, further embedding them into the fabric of the company. This is where talent leadership and sustainability leadership converge – a) making the company a better place to work and, b) encouraging people to be more committed to the company.

Talent is a critical success factor in the sustainability equation. It is much more than a trend, and there are very tangible ways to succeed.

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