The Senior Executive's Sustainability Agenda

The Senior Executive's Sustainability Agenda

Over the past couple of months, a number of high profile surveys and reports have been released that provide useful context for senior executives committed to making sustainability a vital part of their company's success.

One survey found that nearly 90 percent of senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies believe sustainability is a "moral responsibility" but that cost savings is the leading driver of sustainability related project investments.

Another concluded that while most companies see improved efficiency and risk mitigation as positive outcomes of pursuing sustainability, a distinct group of leading companies are aggressively embracing sustainability to create fundamental competitive advantage.

GreenBiz Group's annual State of Green Business report notes that "saving the earth has taken a back seat to simply saving the day" in social and political spheres, but businesses are working to green the U.S. economy more expansively than in the past (yet making progress along only 7 of 20 indicators).

These and similar reports likely to come out through the year will paint enough different pictures for a senior executive to find kindred spirits in whatever approach he might take to sustainability. My own analysis of the strategies the most successful executives are taking now to grow the value of their companies includes a five-part sustainability agenda:

1. Reengage – Yes, investment in sustainability-related projects (most of those that save money) has continued through the downturn. But now, as we come out of a cyclical, albeit deep and damaging recession, C-suite executives are reengaging far more thoughtfully and personally than ever before in the advancement of a long-term company strategy with sustainability at its core.

2. Expand – Sustainability efforts have been focused in too many companies around specific risk or cost considerations and primarily on environmental or social responsibility issues directly in their business path. The greatest opportunity to create value comes when companies expand their strategies to include sustainability thinking and initiatives to top line growth, across all businesses, and deeper into corporate social responsibility areas. Execs at top companies are now pursuing these expansion approaches to make their corporate strategies more meaningful.

3. Reach – Sustainability is a big issue and a big opportunity, perhaps the biggest in the career of many of today's senior executives. The best are seizing this opportunity and pursuing daring goals, reaching for breakthrough approaches in an effort to create truly differentiated and competitively advantaged positions.

4. Embed – Large companies are very complex organisms. It's hard to get them to change or to embrace new strategies or initiatives even with the most deliberate and well-conceived programs. Yet, that is the challenge now at this stage of sustainability adoption. Embedding sustainability goals, approaches, and thinking into the company's core strategies, processes, culture and leadership has become central to making sustainability a foundation for long-term value creation.

5. Deliver – Corporate boards are beginning to demand significant results from sustainability. A handful of sustainability projects that save several million dollars or a few new greener products that shine a temporary light on the company and make employees feel good about it are no longer enough. Results vital to the financial performance, brand and equity value of a company are increasingly the goal of sustainability strategies being outlined by top executives now.

These agenda items are central to what executives at the best companies are pursuing today to make sustainability a part of their current and long-term success.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users Angélique ~  and Jayel Aheram.