'Sustainability'-its all about how we use the word
Conventional wisdom suggests that pressures from non-governmental organisations or positioning on sustainability ranking tables are important factors that direct attention to social and environmental issues inside a company.
10th August 2012
Sustainability: the word you shouldn't use
A new study shows that understanding a company's business objectives and avoiding sustainability jargon is the secret to successful sustainability leadership
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 August 2012 17.34 BST
A recent survey of sustainability leaders conducted through a partnership between VOX Global, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting and the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, indicates that sustainability executives are at the forefront of developing smart business approaches for the future, while minimising risks and costs and capturing new market opportunities.
The report, Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability from Inside Corporate America, identified three major strategies that help sustainability leaders achieve results:
1. The art of communication is key
Before taking their jobs, more than 75% of sustainability executives surveyed thought that sector expertise would be the most important factor in determining their success. However, after starting their jobs, all of them reported that interpersonal skills were in fact most critical.
To be successful, sustainability leaders rarely use the "S" word inside their companies. Rather, they discuss sustainability in the lingua franca of their business. Before focusing on specific initiatives, they need to first sell the concept of sustainability - and sell themselves inside their organisations.
Instead of telling the same sustainability story 100 times, sustainability leaders told - and sold - their story to colleagues in 100 different ways.
2. Sustainability leaders collaborate at all levels
The study revealed that collaboration with colleagues at all levels inside a company is vital to success. This finding is even more significant given that the respondents had little to no direct management oversight across the various business units inside their companies. Collaboration requires sustainability leaders to cultivate and hone a diverse set of people skills. To be successful, they need to be good listeners and identify the business reasons and personal motivations that prompt colleagues to take action.
3. Sustainability leaders connect the outside world to key business drivers
Conventional wisdom suggests that pressures from non-governmental organisations or positioning on sustainability ranking tables are important factors that direct attention to social and environmental issues inside a company. In reality, the leaders surveyed recognise that these influences - though often highly visible and persistent – do not necessarily drive corporate behaviour in isolation. The desire to meet customer expectations and to rise above competitors carried significantly more weight with survey respondents.
However, when third party influences start to impact customer preferences and provide competitive advantage, management starts to take notice. Simply put, the key business drivers of winning over the customer and beating the competition still come first.
The report highlights the fact that sustainability leaders must communicate and build support by working in three different ways:
1. As a catalyst
To drive and accelerate the pace of change, they must communicate the need for a shift of behaviour within a company's corporate culture.
2. As a connector
To connect the impact of the company on the outside world, they need to translate the implications of social and environmental issues and link them to key business drivers in a way that senior management will understand.
3. As a collaborator
To collaborate successfully, sustainability leaders must possess motivational skills that can align a social or environmental issue with the self-interests of a colleague or business and an ability to communicate it in such a manner that inspires action.
Only when colleagues' trust is earned and collaboration is underway can sustainability leaders expect to be successful in implementing programs that will deliver a return on investment - both reputational and financial - to their companies.
Tony Calandro is senior vice president and partner at public affairs and strategic communications firm VOX Global where he co-leads the sustainability practice group
|VOX Global 2012 Sustainability Leaders Survey - Full Report|
|VOX-Global-2012-Sustainability-Leaders-Survey-Full-Report.pdf (876.49 KB)|