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Essential skills for next-generation CSR leaders

I’ve often written about the work and research of Coro Strandberg, a consultant who works with businesses and government and industry associations to create policies for a sustainable future. I highlighted her Green Team Continuum — as I like to call it, CSR 4.0 — which covers four stages: Incremental; Strategic; Cultural; and Transformational.

Coro’s work always stretches my capacity and I’ve routinely appreciated her foresight in predicting the evolution of our sector. Now, a new Insight Briefing (PDF) she put together for the Conference Board of Canada suggests that the role of sustainability practitioners is transitioning once again, this time "from an operational to a more strategic focus as organizations realize they need to become more transformational to foster prosperity for business and society."

Building upon Coro’s 4.0, the briefing suggests that to prepare for this new context, CSR and sustainability practitioners must focus on building capacity in systems thinking, social innovation and external collaboration.

Next-generation sustainability departments

Given this newer context, what could the next generation of sustainability departments look like? As someone who has recruited and placed hundreds of experienced professionals in CSR and sustainability roles through several evolutions of this sector, I found the briefing spot-on for its laser focus on how changing economic, social and environmental contexts continue to reshape these professionals’ priorities as change leaders.

This excerpt sums it up well:

Not only are CSR jobs undergoing renewal, whole departments are transitioning their mandates for greater effectiveness. As organizations advance along the sustainability path, and go beyond only managing operational impacts under their direct control, they come to the realization that the entire sustainability team needs to upgrade its mandate to generate greater success and impact. Leading organizations understand that if they are to become sustainable, their sustainability departments must focus their efforts on transformational, catalytic, capacity-building roles. 

So, what is involved in leading a transformative, catalytic, capacity-building role?

Leading organizations understand that if they are to become sustainable, their sustainability departments must focus their efforts on transformational, catalytic, capacity-building roles.

Become adept at creating capacity with every action you take. For example, is your CSR program creating capacity for your nonprofit partners to more effectively address issues? Or taking into consideration what it takes to bring change to scale? Are your efforts at employee engagement actually leading to behavior change? To different questions asked? To a better contextual understanding of sustainable business?

Improve your ability to catalyze conversations and behavior change. This may be the most challenging, yet it falls squarely on CSR and sustainability leaders, given their wider perspective of a business’ impact and ability to impact change horizontally and vertically across complex organizational hierarchies. For example, does your annual CSR report offer suggestions on how employees, partners and customers can take action toward your organization’s goals? Does it provide context? Or perhaps a new set of questions to ask before they create procurement contracts, hire supply chain partners or initiate a new marketing campaign? 

Commit to working together. Today more than ever, we need more leaders to:

  1. Understand and implement collective action.
  2. Develop scalable solutions.
  3. Broker deeper partnerships that prioritize measurable impact, efficiency and transparency.
  4. Proactively seek out collaborations with our peers, competitors, government officials, activists and advocates.
  5. Invest the time and confidence to ensure our collaborations are truly creating shared value, not just for the business bottom line or cost savings but for the economic, social or environmental aspects we surely touch through each decision we make.

Show intention. As the briefing states, CSR professionals are shifting from "investing in occasional pilots to advance sustainability innovation" to "managing intentional innovation portfolios." That means being acutely intentional with embedding sustainable business principles in every corner of your employee base, from R&D and branding to HR, procurement and finance.

Finally, retool your team to become enablers vs. doers to shift focus from less harm to net positive. Yes, this sounds like a lot of jargon. But we have many leaders such as Unilever [we will double our revenue while halving our negative impact] and Interface [creating carpet tiles that can capture carbon] who are showing us how to do this in more tangible and measurable ways. Ambition helps, but so do culture, focus and transparency. And that starts with creating a culture where people are incentivized to ask questions, think more contextually, approach their jobs as a part of a wider ecosystem and have access to leaders and processes that allow them to contribute to change. 

Thank you, Coro, for your insights and contributions. 

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