Companies that aspire to achieve sustainability often face challenges in rallying their organisation and employees around this objective. While they may have good intentions, their ability to execute their sustainability initiatives may be inconsistent. The process of implementing climate and sustainability transformations is intricate and necessitates a well-designed mechanism for success. This mechanism should be centred around individuals and backed by a clear and structured approach. Establishing a sense of certainty in the execution is crucial, and this can be achieved through robust governance, vigilant oversight, efficient processes, and diligent tracking.
Embracing Sustainability: Navigating the Challenges of Transformation
The pursuit of sustainability, which encompasses more than just reducing emissions and considering a company's overall environmental impact, requires a departure from conventional business practices. This transformation impacts every aspect of the value chain and is not a short-term endeavour like typical transformations that span three to five years. Instead, a sustainability transformation may extend over several decades, reaching as far as the year 2050, which is in the distant future.
In the interim, as time progresses, novel technologies will arise while some with potential will fade away. The financial dynamics of different approaches will quickly shift in response to eco-friendly industrial policies and market influences. The process of transitioning to sustainable practices is intricate and multifaceted, as the outcomes of many decisions and actions will not be immediate but rather realised over an extended period of time. Consequently, organisations must navigate a dual challenge: remaining financially viable in the present while also fulfilling their long-term climate and sustainability obligations.
Successfully navigating through such a shift will prove to be a challenging task. Unless the company can effectively harness the combined knowledge, skills, and resources of contemporary organisations, the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes becomes increasingly limited. Leader enablement, people engagement, culture, and execution are four crucial factors that will significantly impact the outcome.
Let Leaders Lead
Senior executives and middle-level managers play a vital role in driving significant organisational change. They will probably require coaching and training to effectively guide their teams through a transformative process that benefits both the company and the environment.
As part of their preparations, a financial institution developed a specialised program focused on climate and sustainability for its top 100 executives. This program aimed to enhance their understanding of various aspects related to climate, such as the fundamentals, tools for decarbonization, and policies regarding nature and climate. Additionally, senior leaders conducted interactive sessions to educate the managers about the bank's ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) strategy, enabling them to effectively address these topics within their respective teams.
Leaders cannot rely solely on discussions about sustainability; they must actively showcase their genuine and continuous dedication to transformation in order to engage employees. To illustrate, an industrial goods company created various forms of media, such as films, microsites, and posters, and organised town halls to effectively convey the importance of change and generate enthusiasm among the staff.
In general, leaders tend to react based on the incentives they receive. Numerous prominent corporations, including Shell, Adidas, and Unilever, incorporate ESG metrics into at least 20% of their senior executives' long-term compensation that is share-based. Additionally, sustainability targets often come with incentives for middle managers, who play a crucial role in achieving success.
Empower Your People
Employees play a crucial role in either supporting or hindering an organisation's efforts towards becoming more environmentally friendly. Ambitious climate and sustainability goals can inspire and motivate employees at all levels, while actions that are seen as greenwashing can have a demoralising effect.
To foster a sense of goodwill and motivation within their workforce, companies can demonstrate to employees how their individual efforts contribute to larger objectives. While many companies succeed in conveying the reasons behind a transformation during its initial implementation, maintaining a consistent message over time is essential. For instance, a pharmaceutical company demonstrates appreciation to its staff by regularly sending emails that highlight the achievements of frontline employees who actively contribute towards achieving sustainability goals.
In order to foster employee engagement, it is important to establish two-way communication channels. Giving employees the opportunity to suggest solutions and ensuring that their suggestions are valued can greatly enhance their level of involvement. For instance, an upscale fashion brand embraced this approach by inviting its procurement and R&D teams to collaborate on finding ways to reduce Scope 3 emissions. This exercise resulted in the generation of innovative ideas and ultimately revitalised the company's sustainability efforts.
In order to ensure a sustainable and enduring transformation, organisations should actively identify and recruit employees who possess a genuine passion for sustainability as well as the necessary skills and influential capability to drive positive change consulting. These individuals, known as champions, play a crucial role in preserving and advancing transformational efforts even in challenging circumstances.
Organizations may find it necessary to provide training to their employees in order to develop the necessary technical skills to support a sustainable transformation. For instance, a prominent international bank is currently investing in upskilling approximately 30,000 employees across different roles, including back-office staff and frontline bankers, to equip them with knowledge regarding net zero principles and specific banking opportunities. Additionally, a global retailer has taken the initiative to train numerous financial controllers within their organisation to effectively gather emissions and other ESG-related data in conjunction with financial information.
Embrace Sustainability as an Integral Aspect of Your Company's Values
The effectiveness of transformations heavily relies on culture. Without a supportive culture that fosters experimentation, innovation, and a long-term perspective, a sustainability transformation will struggle to succeed. Culture encompasses both behavioural and value aspects, as well as procedural and measurement components. Therefore, organisations must account for both sides when addressing culture.
In terms of corporate identity, it is essential for companies to clearly communicate their commitment to sustainability and associated practices. Synagro, a waste management company operating in North America, exemplifies this by explicitly incorporating sustainability into its purpose ("from waste to worth") and mission (to "partner for a cleaner, greener world"). To bring these values to life and foster loyalty and affinity, it is beneficial for companies to initiate high-profile pilot programs or initiatives that embody their value statements, such as innovative business models or new products. Additionally, companies can support eco-friendly travel, implement meat-free days in staff cafeterias, allocate a portion of their revenues to environmental causes, and establish partnerships with environmental organisations. However, it is crucial for companies to be cautious as employees may perceive these actions as mere "greenwashing" if they are not accompanied by substantial core initiatives.
The practical aspect of culture converts high aspirations into the operational framework of a business. Operational elements like recruitment and advancement should prioritise environmental concerns by highlighting the company's ecological objectives and accomplishments to attract potential employees. In a prominent consumer goods organisation, promotions are withheld from managers whose teams fail to achieve sustainability targets. Similarly, in a mining company, employees who display initiative in sustainability initiatives can earn notable recognition.
Execute, Execute, Execute
Effective leadership, employee engagement, and organisational culture cannot exist in isolation. They must be effectively managed using a range of structured processes and tools. Successful companies implement a robust program framework that ensures the achievement of their objectives and guarantees "execution certainty."
The core of this approach revolves around a transformation office that closely collaborates with or operates within the central sustainability team. This office serves a dual purpose by providing strategic support in program design and tactical coordination and execution without engaging in micromanagement. Working in partnership with business leaders, the office's dedicated team translates the company's long-term sustainability vision and targets into a series of initiatives and a flexible roadmap that evolves as the transformation progresses. By overseeing and supporting these initiatives through program management, business cases, objective clarity, and progress monitoring, the transformation office plays a vital role. One of its key responsibilities is to establish connections between various initiatives and promote collaboration across different departments, dismantling functional silos.
The office responsible for transformation should also monitor and oversee the intangible initiatives related to culture, employee engagement, and skills enhancement that play a vital role in achieving challenging objectives, such as reducing emissions. The office's methodology should be adaptable and not excessively controlling. It should encompass all aspects, including financial, operational, and sustainability strategies and objectives, empowering leaders to make informed decisions and balance competing priorities.
Companies are not required to begin the process from the beginning. There exists a collection of plans, such as the European Union's Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive and the materiality guidelines of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, that offer key performance indicators (KPIs) related to both the operational and financial aspects of sustainability.
Leaders who are able to rally and provide autonomy to their employees and organisations will be at an advantage when it comes to embarking on the lengthy and unpredictable journey toward sustainability.