A growing number of corporations are moving sustainability up their agendas. For example, earlier this year, McKinsey and Co. conducted a study that found 36 percent of surveyed CEOs called sustainability one of their top three priorities, with 13 percent calling it the top priority (up 5 percent from last year). Yet many sustainability professionals encounter resistance when trying to establish senior leader support for implementing a sustainability strategy.

Whether poor alignment to the core business, differing definitions for sustainability and perceptions of business risks, or missed connections between brand opportunities and sustainability, the reasons senior leaders have doubts and hesitation for executing a sustainability plan can vary. Here are a few behaviors sustainability professionals can adopt to support the engagement of senior leaders in sustainability.

  1. Be intimate with your company’s business strategy and empathize with the “trouble spots” of your senior leadership team.  Understanding your company’s business strategy will help ensure you identify the sustainability factors that are most important to the business and align efforts associated with those factors in a manner that supports the goals of, and brings value to, your organization. For example, if your company has more environmental impacts it may be better to engage in more intense environmental sustainability efforts. If, however, your organization struggles with retention and turnover, employee programs such as flexible work schedules and diversity and inclusion efforts may be your focus. Well-built business cases focused on the sustainability factors of greatest importance to the organization will help drive senior leadership engagement and support.
  2. Articulate sustainability into business lingo. Successful sustainability professionals know how to speak with senior leaders in their language. If, for example, you are speaking with your director of energy management who is concerned with energy conservation and greenhouse gas emissions, although they recognize the importance, they likely will not engage with you on concerns about the company’s safety strategy or employee health-care program.  When engaging with senior leaders such as chief financial officers, vice presidents of operations and human resource directors, talk with them about the sustainability factors that are of greatest concern to their specific areas of responsibility and business objectives. These factors, regardless of areas of specific responsibility, should always include a discussion on how sustainability efforts contribute to profitability and the company’s brand and reputation. This will enable senior leaders to more easily connect sustainability to the business drivers they are held accountable for.
  3. Implement an all-encompassing data management system. Senior leaders make decisions and changes in their business practices and organization based on accurate and comprehensive data. When engaging your senior leadership team in sustainability efforts, you must have concrete facts and figures supporting why an effort is important, what resources will be required, how the effort will be managed and what success the company is seeing from its efforts. Sustainability professionals should also provide a framework and plan detailing how data, shortcomings and successes will be shared with senior leaders. Data must be reviewed regularly to ensure the organization is on track for fulfilling its sustainability plan or, should deficiencies be noted, to quickly make adjustments in performance.
  4. Be the sustainability filter for your senior leaders. Sustainability professionals must stay abreast of emerging sustainability trends and help senior leaders cut through the noise and focus on what is material to the organization. For example, for those of us in the meat processing industry, we are seeing an increase in the number of organizations seeking to define sustainable protein production and packing. Are you familiar with these organizations and their mission? Have you established recommendations on whether your company should be engaged with these organizations? Those in sustainability roles must develop a process for tracking current trends and ensure senior leaders are educated on these trends so a decision can be made on how, or if, your company will engage and allocate resources.

Engaging senior leaders on the sustainability issues that are material to the organization is critical for:

  • Validating the challenges and opportunities the organization faces as well as the factors that contribute to these challenges and opportunities.
  • Determining what progress the company can make if it addresses these challenges and opportunities, or what could occur if the organization decides to do nothing.
  • Setting and implementing sustainability action plans and goals that align with the company’s   overall business strategy.
  • Identifying the people within the organization who are best equipped to help fulfill the sustainability strategy and what support and resources are needed from senior leadership.
  • Building momentum, celebrating successes and sharing information and knowledge throughout the organization.

Corporate sustainability efforts increasingly influence the perceptions employees, customers and communities have of a company and its brand. Sustainability efforts cannot be led by a sustainability manager alone. Engage senior leaders to ensure your company’s sustainability efforts bring value to all facets of the organization and its bottom line.