Why sustainability pros need to attack from the middle
Why sustainability pros need to attack from the middle
Embedding sustainability is a term I have jousted around for a decade. What kind of embedding is working today? How has the embedding work shifted? Certainly in the past two years, we have seen significant shifts from external to internal drivers. Employee engagement is a key theme in embedding CSR internally.
Today’s column is co-written with Grant Ricketts, CEO of Tripos Software, who has developed software to engage employees and has a substantial background in learning and talent management. From his conversations with practitioners, he is well positioned to understand their challenges in embedding sustainability. He calls these challenges "getting around the blockers."
The challenge to embedding sustainability is that everybody has a day job, and sustainability is often not seen as integral to it. The question becomes how to get around these “blockers” and engage people in ways that build synergy and upscale results. Companies can leverage three business practices that will help make sustainability part of the everyday business experience.
- Build a base level of awareness: Disarm blockers with a focus on real business opportunities.
- Work with management stakeholders: Tap mainstream channels in the organization, such as human resources, learning and talent leaders, and other organizational development professionals who have vested interests in successfully engaging employees and building superior workforces.
- Anchor employee engagement programs in the business: Overcome organizational timidity by tying the engagement program to core business operations, and relying less on programs at the periphery, such as volunteerism and Earth Day events, which don’t always transition into real business changes for the organization.
Making sustainability relevant to the job role
"Our CEO recognizes the importance of sustainability, and we have many passionate team members," said Krista Van Tassel, sustainability director at Wells Fargo. "However, in my experience, it's very hard to reach across a large organization broadly — to engage team members who are geographically spread out across the county in more than 80 business lines, and who may not understand how sustainability affects the business and/or simply don’t see it as part of their day job."
That captures the essence of the problem: establishing job relevance for sustainability and being able to share it across different operating domains inside companies.
There is generally no common view or baseline understanding of what sustainability means and how it applies to the business. Given a large organization’s size and complexity, it’s difficult to implement programs in ways that are repeatable and scalable, let alone meaningful and motivating. But building awareness, engaging stakeholders, and communicating effectively and consistently are the building blocks needed to chip away at the resistance and succeed.
Closing the language gap
Part of the problem is the language gap between many sustainability advocates and business managers. Sustainability officers report that one of the keys to selling sustainability inside their companies is to communicate issues in language business leaders understand, not sustainability jargon, according to the research report Making The Pitch: Selling Sustainability From Inside Corporate America, led by VOX Global, Weinreb Group and the Net Impact chapter at U.C. Berkeley. The report concludes that selling sustainability is more about establishing business context and building relationships than using green buzzwords.
These leaders know strong organizational cultures are built around shared language and common mental models. So one of the first steps to building engagement around sustainability is to start closing the language gap and work proactively with skeptics in terms they understand.
Companies are discovering that employee learning programs are effective tools to establish context for sustainability. They can make sustainability applicable to the business and to specific job functions, thereby linking it to the company’s operating strategy -- and someone’s day job. Today’s online learning tools mean these programs can address hundreds, even thousands more people than traditional stand-up consulting workshops, and in a very short period of time.
Companies like Applied Materials, Procter & Gamble and the U.S. Postal Service are using online learning solutions to address sustainability issues inside their organization. Tripos Software and Natural Logic, Inc. have partnered to develop an online sustainability learning curriculum called Sustainability In Practice, a role-based curriculum designed to address a wide range of company roles and job functions.
Attacking the middle
Training lays a foundation for change and opens opportunities to work with other internal stakeholders who can further support the cause. As I wrote in a recent column, the Chief Learning Officer can be the CSO’s new best friend. Why? Sustainability is often a win-win topic for HR leaders, learning managers and talent executives who have a vested interest in successfully engaging employees.
Once HR and talent leaders start to understand more about new sustainability-oriented skills and desired behaviors, they can look for ways to map these into the competency framework for performance reviews and compensation plans, further embedding them into the fabric of the company.
But working through the organization can still be intimidating. Those who excel at knowledge and change management, such as Brook Manville, former Saba Software and United Way executive and McKinsey’s first Director of Knowledge Management, suggest, “People too often lose sight of the need to ‘attack the middle’ in organizations where most of the work gets done. This is where real change occurs.”
Engaging mid-management stakeholders requires direct interaction and negotiation around business issues that affect employees and operations. One must know what the sales organization is saying; what product developers are doing; what issues impact the supply chain; production, facilities, and logistics; what office workers can do; and whether each group understands aspects of sustainability that are most relevant to them. Once established, steps to track actions and commitments, support green teams and evaluate results become strategically centered.
There is another reason it’s critical to engage mid-level managers in sustainability planning and implementation. One’s first-line supervisor is the number-one driver of employee engagement, according to several HR and talent management surveys. And disengaged managers are three times more likely to have disengaged employees. This is not a simple problem. U.S. companies lose more than $300 billion in productivity annually due to disengaged workers, other Gallup surveys show.
This take-it-to-the-streets philosophy may sound easy, but organizations tend toward the timid, with many managers waiting for permission from upper management before proceeding. This can be an artificial blocker. Research studies from reputable organizations like Deloitte, MIT Sloan School of Management, Accenture/UN Global Compact Study and others document that 70 to 90 percent of CEOs see sustainability as important to their company’s future success. As our Fortune 100 financial company representative suggests, executive buy-in is pretty well established. It’s mid-management action that’s most needed.
Given the evidence, if we don’t close the language gap and attack the middle, employee engagement in sustainability is destined to remain a peripheral activity, and the transformational opportunities are essentially lost -- or yielded to competitors.
Organizations can and do change. And employee engagement in sustainability can be a driving force. While external factors can certainly stimulate change, as we learn over and over again, the most substantial change ultimately comes from within.
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