One of the biggest challenges faced by those working in ESG is how to secure buy-in across the business for a new sustainability strategy and the policies that follow. Leading without authority is often cited as a primary obstacle for practitioners.
Gaining buy-in early and often is the most critical aspect of a sustainability leader’s core responsibilities because — no matter the level of support at the senior level — it takes cross-functional commitment to deliver real, scalable change. And those cross-functional colleagues also have to deliver on their day job, too, which will always take priority.
Those of us who are deeply embedded in this work know how ambitious sustainability goals are transformative to the way an organization operates and creates value for all of its stakeholders. But convincing every stakeholder — all the way from senior leadership to front-line staff — to add ESG deliverables to their day job is a big sticking point that requires listening skills, empathy and delicate persistence.
So, what’s the best way to achieve this cross-functional buy-in and influence without authority? Here are three critical steps to implement.
1. Find a common objective
The first step is to agree on a common vision or objective from the outset — one that adds a clear sense of value to the organization as a whole. This is especially true in roles that require engagement from external stakeholders, as Andrea Brown Smatlan, chief sustainability officer at multinational chemicals company LyondellBasell, found when consulting across sectors in her previous role as director of circular economy at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
"Getting that common objective at the outset is really critical," says Smatlan. This is true whether you’re collaborating internally or across external stakeholders from the wider industry. "It can take a long time, frankly, as you’re perhaps coming up with a common objective that supports what could be 200-plus employees or 20, 30, 40 companies, each with their own business line pressures."
Convincing every stakeholder — all the way from senior leadership to front-line staff — to add ESG deliverables to their day job is a big sticking point that requires listening skills, empathy and delicate persistence.
Another important part of this first step is to translate external ESG issues into areas of genuine business value and identify the shared opportunity for commercial benefit. Examples include working with product development and sales teams to agree on a premium for more sustainable products, or highlighting to operational teams how efficiencies can be gained through common industrywide frameworks such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
2. Make the business case
The second step is to underpin this business case for progress on sustainability with robust data and analysis. This could relate to financial performance, consumer behavioral trends or policy direction. Often the most relevant types of data and insight are commitments by other companies along the value chain. This is the case with retailers or automotive companies, for example, where data shared by suppliers and manufacturers has a clear ripple effect. Other relevant areas of insight include scrutiny from investor groups and shareholder action as well as an understanding of which topics are gaining policy momentum globally, such as carbon emissions.
Marshaling external data evidence will make it far easier to encourage department heads and front-line staff across operations to deliver on ESG targets.
3. Prioritize collaboration
Finally, don’t underestimate the value of co-creation when it comes to shaping what this common business objective looks like and how it can best be executed. Doing so ensures that sustainability frameworks are viable and shared endeavors rather than policies imposed upon the rest of the business. Work across the company to figure out if a proposed business objective is achievable, how much it will cost and if it is being properly communicated through the governance structures. "Without that co-creation process, it doesn’t work in our experience," says Smatlan.
This approach also leverages the enthusiasm of colleagues at all levels of the organization, which is often abundant if tapped into correctly. People want to feel like they’re doing the right thing, and sustainability leaders can play a critical role in making the case that there is a tangible reason, and way, to do the right thing.
Although achieving cross-functional buy-in can often feel like an uphill struggle for those working in sustainability, it is absolutely critical to delivering on the strategy. With a common vision, data to prove the business case and a collaborative co-creation process, it is more than possible to do, even without authority.