Walking the Walk: Why YOU Are the Key to Your Company’s Sustainability Goals

Sustainability isn’t an issue companies fear addressing.

Findings from a 2019 study by United Nations Global Compact and Accenture Strategy confirm that trend. According to the study, 48% of CEOs include sustainability efforts in their business operations. Still, 80% of those leaders believe companies aren’t doing enough.

Sustainable business owner

And don’t think it’s just leaders trying to incorporate more green initiatives — both consumers and shareholders gravitate toward them. According to a five-year study, products marketed with a green focus benefited from higher and faster sales rates than their competitors.

So what’s keeping companies from reaching their sustainability goals? There are practical barriers such as supply chains, resource management, and processes. Yet the root of the problem is much simpler: Companies cannot fully commit to sustainability because top brass isn’t walking the walk.

Companies, like ships, require considerable effort to change course. A sustainable corporate culture involves more than setting quarterly recycling goals. It requires innovation, creativity, and a fresh perspective — and that takes a special kind of CEO.

Start Sustainability From the Top

If you think you can delegate culture change, you’re mistaken. Without proven executive buy-in, you’ll never see the change you want — sustainability or otherwise. Take executive ownership of your corporate green initiatives with these five steps:

1. Start with the willing, but involve everyone

While you might want to get everyone to embrace sustainability, a more tangible target might be to involve every level of management. Employees might balk at high-risk initiatives that could take their attention away from their regular duties, so you’ll have to build up the momentum deliberately.

The best way to get the ball rolling is to start with team members who exhibit a passion for the environment. Tap into their enthusiasm to create pilot programs that can quickly produce positive results.

For example, you might task a small group to implement a more robust office recycling program. Pay special attention to what the group does, celebrating its trial-and-error mindset and announcing wins to the rest of the company. When other employees see the positive momentum, they will be more inclined to raise their hands to be involved next time.

2. Put your money where your mouth is

In business, money speaks louder than half-hearted memos. Ameren Corporation CEO Warner Baxter provides an example of how leaders can showcase their dedication to sustainability innovations.

Baxter dedicates finances, staff time, physical space, and other company resources to his company’s sustainable accelerator and other green projects. Baxter also designates internal champion teams and dedicates resources toward sustainable practices. In short, Baxter demonstrates his commitment to sustainability and innovation while setting an example for the rest of his company.

Take a page out of Baxter’s book: When you identify groups to work toward sustainability goals, provide them with the resources they need to enact the change you want.

Transformational leadership

3. Stay the course

Many CEOs are forced to make decisions based on reliable, short-term results. Sustainability — and innovation, for that matter — is not a quick fix.

Set short-term (quarterly), midterm (yearly), and long-term (every three years or so) goals. Track companywide progress toward these goals, and share any movement or wins with your team.

If employees propose new Earth-friendly packaging that might reduce profits initially, your response will tell them everything they need to know about your dedication to the cause. If you abandon a great idea or sustainable practice at the first sign of trouble, it’ll never bear fruit. Your employees need to see that you are committed to sustainability — even through potential speed bumps and wrong turns.

4. Reward consistently

It might take up to five years to harvest innovative practices, and your employees could become disengaged without consistent feedback and encouragement. When working toward sustainability, encourage an entrepreneur’s mindset of failing fast. Adopt a short-term memory for people’s mistakes, learn from those errors, and celebrate the willingness to take a risk.

Meanwhile, acknowledge wins both publicly and internally. Personally recognize team members who act in the name of sustainability goals, and outwardly reward folks who demonstrate a commitment to the cause.

5. Defer credit to others

Even though CEOs will make or break progress toward sustainability, it’s vital to influence culture by recognizing the efforts of others. If you take credit for the work of your team members, they won’t feel motivated to continue — and whatever momentum you have will come to a crashing halt.

View it as a long-term investment. Foster sustainability stars in your organization beyond the C-suite. Praise team members who make progress toward goals, and acknowledge individuals at every level who generate creative ideas, embrace risks, and take on responsibility toward sustainability. Positive reinforcement will hopefully inspire others to take up the cause.

Consumers, shareholders, and your employees are interested in your company becoming more sustainable. But it can’t get there unless you buy into the cause. Don’t just pay lip service to the idea; show your dedication over time, and you’ll see sustainable results.


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