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Navigating internal politics to ‘get it done’

Chess board
Andrey Popov

Getting things done in corporate sustainability is easier said than, well, done. Lofty goals and good intentions don’t automatically yield reduced impacts, and the most brilliant environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy means little if it can’t be implemented.

Often the most difficult aspect of a corporate sustainability professional’s job isn’t conducting materiality assessments, developing SASB indices or creating ESG reports — it’s dealing with good, old-fashioned organizational politics.

Love it or hate it, politics exists wherever humans come together to take collective action. And the root cause of organizational politics are scarce resources, social and structural inequalities, and individual personal motivations, according to Harvard Business Review.

From the burgeoning startup to the flourishing Fortune 500, organizational politics determine budgets, policies and other business priorities. Even if united by a common corporate vision or purpose, differing departments, teams and individuals all vie for scarce resources — including time pressures — to achieve their goals.

Show the value of ESG within the context of leadership’s biggest concern of the moment, or how it builds on their greatest success, and leadership will listen.

"It’s important to spend time understanding the politics in your organization," said Lindsay Wilkinson, director of corporate responsibility and public affairs at Cox Enterprises. "Understanding the cadence of who to get buy-in from, what’s important to them and really understanding how the ESG work impacts their goals is important."

If they hope to be successful in translating ESG strategy into actions that matter, corporate sustainability professionals must both acknowledge that these politics exist and learn how to work within the system to get things done.

Being in the room where it happens

Corporations aren’t democracies — and one of the best ways to ensure an ESG strategy is taken seriously by the organization is to seek support from the top. 

"The first step to ‘getting things done’ is to get buy-in from your executive management team," said Andrea DeMarco, senior vice president of investor relations, corporate communications and ESG at Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.

This, of course, can seem as difficult as addressing the climate crisis itself. Not all senior leaders may appreciate the value ESG brings to an organization. And while in recent years, it has fallen out of fashion for the C-suite to outright reject ESG — at least publicly — and a growing number of prominent CEOs have publicly proclaimed support for ESG initiatives, many continue to only pay lip service.

"Know the context of what leadership is dealing with and be solutions-oriented," said Jaclyn Allen, director of corporate sustainability at Guess. "Show the value of ESG within the context of leadership’s biggest concern of the moment, or how it builds on their greatest success, and leadership will listen."

To engage the C-suite, corporate sustainability professionals must learn how to frame ESG initiatives as being aligned with business goals. Strong ESG performance provides multiple direct and ancillary business advantages — including driving top-line growth, reducing operating costs, achieving higher strategic freedom from fewer regulatory and legal interventions, improving employee productivity and optimizing investments and assets. And if that doesn’t get their attention, perhaps investor interest will: Sustainability-focused funds attracted record inflows during the first quarter of 2021, pushing global assets under management in ESG funds to nearly $2 trillion, according to Morningstar.

Both HP Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer Ellen Jackowski and International Paper CSO Sophie Beckham espouse taking a top-to-bottom and bottom-up approach to translating ESG strategy into action. 

"In order for us to drive meaningful, lasting change for ESG, we intentionally and actively engage with senior leadership and employees," Jackowski noted.

"We want to inspire the people who are working day to day to execute on our company’s vision," Beckham added.

While employees look to leadership for cues on what is most important, leadership also may find it difficult to ignore an employee base that is revved up for ESG action.

Engaging employees with ESG benefits

Even with C-suite support, corporate sustainability professionals are dependent on dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of employees for an ESG strategy to actually be implemented. Corporations tend to be busy places, and ESG adds additional work to already full plates. Helping employees understand "what’s in it for them" is critical for ensuring that they comply.

"Given the buy-in from the top, a big part of it is helping teams see the value of sustainability to their work," said Sam Ruben, chief sustainability officer and co-founder at Mighty Buildings. "This can be through showing how it can help them with their goals as well as helping them understand how their work directly impacts the larger goals of the company — including sustainability."

Allen echoed this sentiment. "Showing employees how their action will make a real difference either impact-wise or business benefit- wise — or ideally both — is important," she said. "Make them a key part of the change so it becomes everyone’s project, not just the 'ESG project.'"

Companies such as Unilever, IBM and Marks & Spencer have found success in implementing ESG strategy by creating the conditions for internal stakeholders to "own it." In these organizations, employees are given psychological ownership of ESG efforts — that is, it isn’t seen as "someone else’s problem."

Focusing on internal relationships

For corporate sustainability professionals, developing strong internal relationships across departments and teams can make or break an ESG program.

"Behind every environmental win within a company, there’s a champion that has been influencing, leading and persisting," said Elysa Hammond, SVP environmental stewardship at Clif Bar & Company. "As sustainability leaders, it’s important that we build relationships across the organization and, in the process, identify and support these champions."

ESG efforts should not and cannot be political.

A strong internal network also can arm corporate sustainability professionals with the information they need to win the political game.

"Build relationships with a trusted confidante that also understands company politics, so they can help you to determine the right people, the right approach and the right timing to move something forward," Allen said

Creating a culture of ESG excellence

While politics exist in all organizations, this doesn’t mean that ESG always needs to be political — such as with companies further along on their journey that have aligned business and ESG strategies.

"ESG efforts should not and cannot be political," Jackowski said. It’s important for brands to embed purpose in their culture and business strategy. And the best way to remove politics and friction is by creating a culture "where ESG is valued from each employee up to the C-suite."

Added DeMarco: "Put politics aside and create a team environment to rally everyone behind your strategy on how to advance your ESG journey."

For any ESG program, employees are the biggest amplifiers — both internally and externally. These are, after all, the folks who actually will implement the initiatives that enable impact.

"Every internal stakeholder is important, and ESG should be integrated throughout the organization and culture to create real change that lasts," Allen said.

Otto von Bismarck once said that "politics is the art of the possible." Corporate sustainability also is about the possible — the better tomorrow that could exist if we only got our act together today.

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