* This article first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.
For a sustainability or corporate responsibility director, the major threats to making a business a sustainability champion don’t come in the form of pesky campaigners or a worsening financial climate – they come from the people sitting around them.
In general, anyone tasked with the sustainability agenda for their company should spend at least half of their time outside the office. This is a major challenge when hours of the working week are taken up navigating internal politics, negotiating even small amounts of capital expenditure or overcoming organised resistance from all manner of departments. Too often time and resource are wasted making the case internally when they could be better spent actually doing something. So who needs convincing?
The far too busy and important CEO
The CEO sees peers and competitors getting credit for sustainability and demands to know why his or her company isn’t doing the same. Once the order has come from the top, everyone scrambles around trying to pull together examples of good work already underway. It usually amounts to a fairly unambitious ad hoc set of recycling initiatives and a donation to a school.
However let’s assume the company is further down the path and there is good work underway to improve sustainability performance and derive some credit. This is the moment at which the CEO becomes key. It is also often the moment when the CEO’s diary is almost impossible to negotiate.
A schedule in which two annual sustainability ‘slots’ can only be found with great difficulty is not a diary of someone thinking daily about their company’s planetary and social impact. It is almost as if some top bosses think sustainability no longer matters when their firm is out of immediate danger. This is a risky strategy.
CEOs vary enormously by temperament, but many have certain traits in common. In the early years they look to make their mark by doing things differently to their predecessor; sustainability is one of the most powerful and commercially relevant ways to do this.
Some CEOs wish to raise their personal profile and ‘humanise’ the look and feel of their company. Again, being hands-on about sustainability challenges – visiting farmers, water projects and factories – is one of the easiest ways to become known for more than just quarterly results. Statistics that bring to life what will happen to the commodity prices on which their business depends, what facilities and factories might be rendered impotent by climate change, what a lawsuit on a spill or child labour scandal might cost: these are things that increasingly get CEOs out of bed.
In order to influence a CEO you have to understand what makes them tick, what drives them to increase business performance, what they wish to be judged upon. Part of this means helping them see emerging points of view, threats and opportunities; sustainability is still not the everyday natural parlance of the corporate sector.
Some of the challenge lies in illustrating where competitors are outclassing them. This appeals to the competitive instinct without which you cannot run a major company.
But I find that before all this, CEOs have begun to hear increased chatter levels about sustainability. Not from the business media or NGOs or governments; sometimes not even from customers. Often the first place they hear about all this is from their own employees.
The workforces of multinational companies are the great untapped resource in promoting a positive vision of sustainable business. Too often effort is expended communicating on green and social issues to the outside world, instead of starting with the ready-made taskforce of ambassadors a company already has. Mobilising staff only accelerates the sustainability mission in a business. Enlightened CEOs spot it, nurture it, and enjoy the rewards of a motivated workforce that feels it, too, is changing the world.
The cynical finance director
The fastest time I have seen a company move from first base to advanced sustainability strategy was when the client’s head of sustainability was also the group finance director. To have this often tricky obstacle as an enabler and driver is a rare luxury. Too often, finance directors see this tedious sustainability business as either simple compliance or a ‘cost’ (if your view of balance sheets is somewhere in the late 1950s).
Accustomed to viewing everything in quarterly cycles, the idea of long-term ROI is a struggle for these directors. Often, sustainability directors spend as much time trying to circumvent finance directors as they do embedding sustainability in their business. The most successful corporate sustainability champions tend to have bridged this divide.
Finance directors aren’t easily convinced. Investors are still not clamouring for sustainability in the numbers or scale required for global transformation. The obvious route to a finance director’s heart is to show the long-term cost savings and increased profit margins of implementing real, long-term sustainability initiatives. The sustainable business revolution is old enough to provide more than anecdotal evidence.