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Canada's national railway is on track to 'sustainability 2.0'

A Q&A with Canadian National Railway’s Chantale Després and Coro Strandberg on what it takes to get next-generation sustainability right.

For every organization, sustainability is on a continuum. It might start in one place, with a focus on something very specific like managing a particular risk, and then move into a much more strategic role in the company. Many of the sustainability practitioners I have spoken to over the years have talked about how the job description they were hired to perform no longer resembles the job they do today.

If your company is advancing along the sustainability continuum, what does that mean for your team and your role? If you are leading this transition, how can you define the roles, responsibilities, skills and competencies needed for your team to achieve your organization’s new sustainability agenda?

These are questions I have previously covered about the work of Coro Strandberg, a consultant who helps organizations create policies for a sustainable future. Recently, Coro worked with Canadian National Railway’s (CN) Sustainability Director Chantale Després to help that company transition the agenda of sustainability 2.0 — moving from operational function to a strategy-focused function. Chantale’s goal is for sustainability to deliver even more value to the business so that the company can more effectively manage risk, capture opportunities, and create value in society. She worked with Coro to imagine the next phase of CN’s sustainability journey, including the roles and responsibilities required to get there.

Chantale and Coro spoke with me about the steps they are taking to usher in Sustainability 2.0 at CN, the factors needed to make this transition successful and how next-generation sustainability done right can be truly transformational — for business and beyond.

Ellen Weinreb: What was the impetus for CN’s transition to sustainability 2.0?

Chantale Després: We established the sustainability group in 2010, under the previous CEO who was just becoming CEO at the time, so it was an opportune time to create and formalize our sustainability agenda. The mandate then was to build it from the ground up, literally: to establish a sustainability culture — mainly an environmental sustainability culture — and to build more robust sustainability disclosures on behalf of the organization.

But after five years, it was very clear that I was bumping up against the limitations of that role. I was reporting to the assistant vice president, who was not at the executive table, and we could see that in order to achieve sustainability 2.0, we needed to integrate sustainability into corporate strategy and the decision-making process. Part of the challenge when I started in environment and operations is that sustainability was established as another, separate thing. And what we’re realizing as a company and particularly through stakeholder pressures is that it needs to be integrated into a corporate strategy.

Coro, how did you and Chantale end up working together?

Coro Strandberg: In my work with clients in the past few years, I was seeing five-year-old sustainability jobs transition from operational, reputation management and incremental priorities to a strategic, value-creating and transformational focus. Based on engagements to help clients elevate their roles and impacts along with their departments, I developed a framework which I turned into a tool for The Conference Board of Canada to help organizations transition their sustainability departments to play this more strategic, value-creation role. The framework looks at: What is prompting this shift? What new competencies are needed? What functions does sustainability need to play? And how does that affect job descriptions?

We used this to help Chantale crystalize that her job had evolved and that she needed to take the lead in this transition. It was a very efficient way to acknowledge that the company had gone from sustainability 1.0 to 2.0 — and was positioned to accelerate and scale sustainability internally and externally.

Chantale, what factors needed to align for this transition to work?

Després: I think the goal with the initial role was to establish a proven track record and have a strong business case so that when the time came to come to the table — when we’d want to create more value or scale — we would have that proven track record.

There were also two other key external factors that made me realize it was a good time to make this transition. I think timing is important in all of this. Even if you are able to create a lot of value, that alone isn’t going to take you to the next level.

I was seeing five-year-old sustainability jobs transition from operational, reputation management and incremental priorities to a strategic, value-creating and transformational focus.

The first external factor was the evolution of the regulatory environment. Last year, Canada established a price on carbon, and that elevated the environmental sustainability climate file, both from a risk and opportunity perspective. That file started to rise up inside the organization. 

The second external factor was that we were bringing in a new vice president of safety and sustainability. That made it a good time to raise this opportunity to move me and my team from one function to another. I was reporting to the assistant vice president of environment, who, in turn, was reporting to the vice president of safety and sustainability. I proposed the idea of moving my team to report directly to the vice president of corporate development. 

In moving from one department to another, and now reporting directly into the executive level, what were some of the nuts and bolts of this transition? How did you change the job descriptions for you and your team?

Després: For us, the evolution of job descriptions is not something we do on a regular basis. Particularly for sustainability practitioners, we begin and our jobs evolve quite quickly. But internally, it’s not a reflex to review and revise job descriptions on a regular basis, so Coro’s tool was valuable to me. A lot of the work Coro and I did together was to crystallize not only the role but the mandate so we could deliver on the sustainability agenda as a team in the future.

Particularly for sustainability practitioners, we begin and our jobs evolve quite quickly.

One of the helpful exercises we did was look at the current roles and responsibilities and identify the gaps. The idea was to figure out: How do we fill those gaps if we want to deliver on the future sustainability mandate, not the current sustainability mandate?

Strandberg: Using the tool, we were able to pull from a fairly robust list of the possible transformational, 2.0 roles a sustainability team could play. It gave Chantale a reference point to think about what skills and competencies she would need.

What’s your advice for others who are helping their company transition to next-generation sustainability?

Després: A strong track record is critical: You really need to have a strong value proposition and a proposition that’s proven. Then you need to link it to the possible value creation you could drive by scaling, or by collaborating outside the company. And you need to focus on the risk of not making this move. You also need internal support and a senior-level champion. Finally, you need to know your organization’s culture and how to properly position the value creation, opportunity, and risk. What would work one way for me may not work for somebody else in a different organization with a different culture.

Strandberg: In your sustainability role, you need to recognize that there really is a 2.0 and hone your thinking about what is a 2.0 in your organization. As a sustainability practitioner, you’re trying to catalyze, accelerate and scale a sustainable future, so the sooner you can get to 2.0, the better off your company is and the better off society is. In hindsight it appears that the early years of sustainability practice are sort of like a pilot project, testing to see what works and understanding the company’s culture in order to pivot and scale the prototype. Now is the time for sustainability practitioners around the world to take this work to the next level. The company’s future and society depend upon it.

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