Coaching the C-suite in profitable sustainability

"Each quarter, we update our executives on the company’s sustainability progress," reported a CSR manager I know.

This practice is good, but not optimal. The proven way to kick-start any organization and propel it toward best environmental and social practices is to coach the CEO, CFO, CTO (chief technology officer) and other C-suite executives in providing vision and instilling accountability for competitive sustainability goals that also generate competitive-business benefits. 

If your job description doesn’t specify executive coach, don’t be deterred. Few, if any, of your executives took sustainability leadership courses in their MBA programs or served as another company’s chief sustainability officer. Even when executives "want to do the right thing" — or at least recognize critical stakeholders’ (customers, shareholders, employees, NGOs) demands for environmental and social responsibility — they likely don’t know how to lead their companies in doing so. That’s where coaching comes in.

A tech-industry sustainability director once told me, "Developmental coaching is quite useful; it’s important for executives to understand the broad opportunities that sustainability presents. Coaching gets them 'over the starting line.'"

Below are examples of techniques I use to coach tech company CEOs, CFOs and CTOs in creating vision and executing profitable sustainability throughout their organizations, products and supply chains:

CEO

Business imperative: Using case studies from select customers, competitors and/or suppliers, I first demonstrate how a leadership-level sustainability strategy increases market share, reduces costs, spurs innovation and builds investor, customer and employee confidence. I connect the dots between the organization’s environmental impacts reductions, cost savings, customer preference, employee engagement and/or other business benefits. 

Vision: Because an organization’s culture is set in large part by the CEO, I ask him or her to describe his or her personal and professional vision for improving the environment and the human condition. Starting with the CEO’s vision, we collaborate on how best to apply it to the business to inspire and direct sustainability-roadmap elements that align with the vision.

Acting as a spokesperson: When Intel’s CEO announced at CES 2016 his commitment to conflict-free components and Volvo’s CEO personally committed to 100 percent electrified cars by 2018, we all sat up and listened. The CEO’s own voice is powerful when communicating — with passionate purpose — sustainability commitments. I coach the CEO in expressing sustainability vision and goals to essential stakeholders: employees; suppliers; customers; investors; board members; editors; NGOs; community groups; industry associations; and more. It’s important to characterize which sustainability goals and related business benefits resonate with each group.

Execution: I ask the CEO to describe recent business directives that the C-suite successfully executed throughout the organization, and together we overlay sustainability metrics to the most applicable, successful model. I provide sample corporate-sustainability performance targets along with accountability expectations for making sustainability truly "sustainable" for the corporation and its suppliers.

CFO

ROI metrics for sustainability: I objectively demonstrate cost savings and new revenues from sustainability initiatives deployed at the company’s influential stakeholder organizations. Next, I introduce the High-ROI Sustainability Roadmap methodology for setting and tracking financial goals alongside sustainability goals over the next quarters and years. We discuss which capital-equipment-dependent sustainability initiatives likely would meet corporate ROI expectations.

Financial models for the circular economy: I describe best practices at relevant companies for transforming from the linear financial model of "make it, sell it, lose track of it," to the circular economy financial model of "leverage existing materials, lease it or sell it as a service, reclaim it." We evaluate financial models to enable circularity in the company’s products and services.

CTO (or other title responsible for R&D and product design)

Ecodesign: I explain how ecodesign principles tend to increase product reliability (we’ve identified an 80 percent overlap), reduce costs (by reducing materials, complexity and manufacturing time), generate more revenue over the life of the product (through leasing, refurbishing, reselling and reuse) and reduce regulatory risk (by designing for both current laws and future ones). Then I share case studies of how leading customers, competitors and/or suppliers train design teams in ecodesign principles, install design gates for ecodesign implementation and reward product-launch teams for embedding increasing levels of ecodesign in all products.

Technology roadmap: I introduce the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative's Sustainable Electronics Roadmap (to which I contributed), and we discuss how ecodesign can propel this company’s products forward on the technology roadmap — yielding customer-advantageous innovation and significant reductions in design time and cost of goods.

Circular economy: I describe circular economy models that could be beneficial to the company’s products, and we brainstorm how to shift to circular models. This process usually starts with product concept and architecture. 

Communicating vision: As with the CEO, I coach the CTO in communicating sustainability vision, specifically for products, services and contributions to global environmental and social benefits. Second to the CEO, the CTO can be the next most powerful spokesperson to convey the company’s commitment to leadership-level goals/progress in sustainable products and processes.

Lori Duvall, director of global impact at eBay, took a "coaching" approach to help executives see how the circular economy has both business and reputational value to the company. Duvall advises her peers to do their homework about what each leader is trying to achieve and figure out how smart sustainability goals can help them succeed.

"Making the conversation about business goals is key to getting executive support," she said. "Without that, your sustainability agenda is less likely to be seen as key to the company’s mission and get the traction it needs."

This approach was key in setting eBay’s first-of-its-kind circular economy goal, published this spring, targeting both carbon reduction and economic benefit for eBay’s customers.

When your executives drive profitable sustainability as part of their key annual performance goals, watch the boulder roll down the hill — rapidly gathering cost savings, increased revenues, differentiated brand, customer advantages, engaged employees and results for people and planet that inspire pride.