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5 ways to engage your senior leadership on sustainability strategy

BSR knows that aligning business strategy and sustainability takes more than an on-board board, so expert corporate leadership is integral.

This article is part of a series by BSR that will explore how corporate sustainability pros can work across departments on shared goals.

At BSR, we believe the time has come for a completely new way of designing business strategy and creating value. The era of stand-alone sustainability strategies, with subsequent integration of sustainability into company strategy, needs to end; the creation of resilient business strategies that take sustainability as their foundation needs to begin.

But for that to happen, boards and senior executives must have the expertise, insights and information necessary to plan for a sustainable future over the long term, while also overseeing sustainability performance today. This means we as a profession more effectively must engage our senior leadership on sustainability topics.

As with most things, this is of course easier said than done. Up until now, much of the corporate leadership on sustainability has come from companies with senior leaders who already have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid and integrated sustainability from the top down, driven by personal passion and an inherent belief that sustainability and business objectives are inextricably linked. We see time and again that we can’t always count on this type of organic change from an "enlightened CEO," and so we also need practical strategies to engage with senior leadership.

Further, while we all recognize the absolute necessity of engaging with our senior leaders, evidence shows we struggle to do it in practice. In BSR and Globescan’s 2017 survey of 250 companies on The State of Sustainable Business, we found that while 90 percent of respondents believe the CEO and C-suite leadership have significant influence over the sustainability agenda, only 40 percent of sustainability teams prioritize engagement with the CEO’s office.

While 90 percent of respondents believe the CEO and C-suite leadership influence the sustainability agenda, only 40 percent of sustainability teams prioritize engagement with the CEO’s office.
Why do we think that’s the case?

As an interviewee for our recent report, "Redefining Sustainable Business: Management Systems for a Rapidly Changing World," explained, "The greatest challenge of any business is managing short term and long term. Sustainability is just that long-game perspective." Talk to almost any sustainability professional, and he or she will tell you that short-termism is the most significant barrier to senior level engagement.

That’s certainly part of the issue, but it’s not the whole story. The lack of clarity surrounding the role of sustainability departments can make it difficult for teams to gain the political capital necessary to effectively engage in strategic discussions and influence the C-suite. Moreover, when teams do have the opportunity to interact with senior leaders, they often struggle to tell a compelling story for that audience.

So how can you better engage and support your senior leaders in creating businesses that actively contribute to a just and sustainable world?

1. Change the rules of the game

Certainly, short-term pressures and incentive structures are beyond the direct control of sustainability teams, but you can and should prioritize advocacy on three main objectives that increase the effectiveness of corporate leaders in addressing sustainability topics:

  • Align incentives with long-term business success. In our experience, companies exhibiting leadership in the sustainability space nearly always tie executive compensation to some measure of sustainability performance.
  • Increase the level of sustainability expertise on the board through both new appointments and training.
  • Leverage external advisory councils.

The role of the board is to safeguard the long-term value of a company. But in our current system, boards and CEOs alike often wonder whether they are going outside of their remit by tacking sustainability issues. We need to do everything we can to get sustainability squarely on the agenda and prepare senior leadership to effectively tackle these issues.

2. Look forward, not backward

Sustainability teams can — and should — play the roles of change agent, futurist and provocateur that are critical to developing robust, resilient corporate strategies. As practitioners, we need to transform our reputation from Chicken Littles, constantly talking about the sky that’s falling, to Wonder Women, swooping in to save the day in a time of great uncertainty.

A member recently shared with us that the moment of transformation for his relationship with his senior leader came when his team started using its quarterly KPIs to forecast the future, not scrutinize the past. This forward-looking perspective led to big changes, such as re-designing processes in anticipation of new product launches.

3. Use numbers wisely

Invest in quantification tools and approaches that will allow you to capture the full value of sustainability to the business and simultaneously resist being distracted by what is quantifiable over a more compelling moral, ethical or futures-oriented argument that is of material significance to the business. While quantification and monetization of sustainability is critical and will allow you to have a more informed dialogue, both internally and externally, about the value of the business, selling sustainability exclusively on financial terms is a risk, particularly if the financial implications are not significant enough to be material to the business. The impact of taking action to address climate change can be so much bigger than cost savings on energy, and we shouldn’t be afraid to present it that way.

4. Create sophisticated communications strategies

Recognize that the same message won’t work for everyone, which means you should be strategic in how you frame your ideas. Really listen to what leaders are saying, observe which ideas and priorities get the most traction and use that insight to strengthen your position. Ruthlessly prioritize what needs senior leadership engagement and what can be accomplished without engagement at a senior level. The reality is that CEOs and boards are busy, and they simply cannot engage on everything. The further out you are looking, the more nebulous the business case is, or the harder your proposal is to measure, the more senior buy-in is appropriate. 

5. Do not go it alone

Sustainability teams are often small and under-resourced. Use your networks to help deliver your message. Highlight complimentary ideas from key stakeholders such as investors, customers and high-profile activists. Perhaps most important, find those influential colleagues within your organization who are willing to engage, provide them with the tools they need to fully embrace sustainability and let the work you do together speak for you.  

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