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Three Hidden Killers of Sustainability Programs

In the past decade, corporate sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs have come a long way, with companies putting real money and staff into the efforts. Increasingly, companies have appointed top executives to be held accountable in these areas, and just about every big firm issues some kind of sustainability or CSR report.

But despite the continued focus, progress remains slower than hoped. Why? After all, studies continue to show that CEOs rank sustainability as one of the most critical business drivers that will affect their company’s success — and financial performance — in the years to come.

Many factors determine a company’s ability to sustain sustainability. However, there are common themes that lead to frustration and failure. Unfortunately, these challenges are often hidden in plain sight, and many companies fail to effectively overcome them. Here are three common hidden killers of corporate sustainability programs.

1: No clear linkage to the corporate strategy

Many sustainability concepts are not necessarily new, but rather require a new way of thinking and doing business. Initial efforts were frequently tenuous and isolated. Even as companies have picked up the pace and invested time and energy in sustainability, the focus often has been put on plans that were never truly connected to the broader mission of the company.

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As a result, sustainability as a corporate program often finds itself isolated and not true to the core of the business. When this happens, people outside the sustainability group don’t really know what these initiatives are, why they exist, and most importantly — why they should care. When sustainability is not linked to business strategy, it sits in a silo and gets stagnant. Good intentions aren’t enough.

2: Death by Middle Management

In the corporate sustainability world, there is often discussion about what’s better —having the CEO mandate, support and lead sustainability by example, or having grassroots efforts lead up to a groundswell of momentum. This boils down to a debate about a top-down vs. a bottom-up approach. Most sustainability executives would actually prefer to have both (and no one company’s efforts are all one vs. all the other), but the question remains as to which approach is the best to generate and sustain momentum. In some ways though, neither solves one of the fundamental and critical challenges of sustainability: death by middle management. Top-down and bottom-up programs both meet in the middle. Often, this layer of an organization is populated by veterans who are deeply entrenched in their way of doing things. Further complicating matters is the fact that most incentive systems at this level are tied to operational or revenue metrics.

Middle managers often have no incentive to support corporate sustainability programs. At the same time, this layer of management is utterly vital to success; it is where strategy cascades to meet execution. It’s also the part in the organization where the efforts of the rank and file roll up to upper management. No grassroots effort can thrive without middle management and no CEO mandate makes it down throughout the organization without their help. This level of a company is too often overlooked and should be an area of special focus as part of any sustainability program.

3: Premature Declaration of Victory

Every company needs to define what sustainability means to them. No two companies are the same and therefore no two sustainability programs should be the same either. In the past 10 years, companies have increasingly focused on trying to stake out their position. In the course of doing so, many companies have built language to describe how what they’ve doing is inherently "sustainable." In many cases, companies have retrofitted their particular definition of sustainability to rationalize what they’ve done for years. In other cases, companies work on sustainability for a year or two, plant their flag, declare victory, and move on. This complete lack of authenticity can kill a sustainability program in its tracks.

Both of these scenarios create serious challenges to advancing the agenda. What’s worse, humans are hard-wired to think short term. Once a company declares victory, employees move on and internal drive to keep improving evaporates. Companies have to be very careful about presenting — either internally or externally — a picture of a mission that’s been accomplished.

Sustainability is hard. It requires focus over a long period of time and a willingness to keep pushing forward, no matter what successes or failures are encountered along the way. Companies generally kick off sustainability programs with genuinely pure intentions. Due to these hidden killers, many programs fall well short of their promise and fail to deliver important returns. Addressing these issues up front can ensure the vitality of sustainability and pre-empt the challenges to which too many programs have succumbed.

This post first appeared on FastCoexist on September 3, 2013.


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