Attention, Change Agents:
How to Help Shape Your CEO's Sustainability Decisions

It’s no secret that your CEO’s level of commitment to sustainability can have a huge impact on your organization’s sustainability journey. That’s why we decided to speak with over 100 CEOs, board members, and sustainability executives from a range of global companies, to try to understand the factors that influence CEO leadership and decision making around sustainability — and how corporate sustainability change agents can help support that process. Here are a few of the interesting things we learned:

Influential change agents have the courage and the savvy to let the business “fail small”

Companies often have a fear of failure and a culture that seeks to prevent it at all costs. After all, no one is paid to let things go wrong, right? But here’s the problem: by always jumping in to fix small failures before they happen, you give your executive team a false sense that the status quo is good enough.

As one senior executive we spoke with described:

“Believe it or not, one of the tactics I adopt is one of just letting mini-crises come up… because it just creates a sense of urgency. That blood rush to the brain just makes them more receptive to solutions or different solutions because now there's a need to deal with the problem. I just need to do the preparatory work for when the crisis hits because I can see when it's coming. Or you fall into the trap of fixing everything before anything ever goes wrong so everyone goes: Well, what's the big issue? Look how great everything is.”

To address this complacency, savvy change agents occasionally allow their organization to make small mistakes. They then leverage the consequences of those mistakes to illustrate the danger of failing on a larger scale — and the need to adjust the organization’s internal processes to avoid such failure. This can help support CEOs in two ways: by influencing their own understanding of the consequences of failure, and by creating an organizational culture that is more receptive of change.

Successful change agents find ways for their CEOs to learn from influential peers

Providing an opportunity for your CEO to hear a peer’s personal story can also be an effective tactic in combating complacency. Several of the CEOs that we spoke with pointed to having been influenced by seeing a peer that they respected in another industry make the shift.

As one CEO put it:

“I think it's only when you can take yourself out of the industry, put yourself into something else, and suddenly you see the burning platform they face. The whole thing of why revolutions happen — it's very difficult for you to really believe that much is going to change. You don't want to change too much. You're on this winning streak and you’ve got your share options and you’ve got a good formula and you allow a few people to talk but you say the world isn't really going to change.”

In other words, there is a difference between possessing a general knowledge of the need for change and hearing another person articulate that need from a personal perspective. Oftentimes, when things appear to be going fine on their side of the fence, executives don’t feel compelled to act despite being presented with evidence that action is needed. A personal story told by someone they respect can help drive the message home and help them internalize difficult truths.

The Embedding Project is a community of sustainability change agents and researchers from around the world harnessing their collective knowledge to develop rigorous but practical guidance that benefits everyone. These are just a few of the interesting things we have learned about how to support your CEO. For more ideas on how to help shape your CEO’s thinking on sustainability, consult our free Supporting Your CEO guide and worksheets.

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