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Organizational Change
5 Ways to Create a Culture of Sustainability in Any Company

There is no simple way to identify a leading company in sustainability. Given the proliferation of ratings, rankings, blogs and indices, there is no shortage of opinions, and often these are in direct conflict with one another. The methodologies used to calculate performance are often very opaque, or nonexistent. Even highly reputable organizations, based on a good core of data, often produce wildly divergent results from one another. And once the pundits get a hold of any ranking, they usually tear it to pieces, bringing their own criteria, opinions and biases to bear and further muddying the waters. While the debates are often fierce, no one can really agree on what sustainability itself really means.

This is good news for the majority of companies that are still trying to get their footing on sustainability performance. If even the experts can’t agree, why worry about trying to please them — or anyone? The muddied waters give companies room to chart the course forward themselves. So instead of looking for outside verification that they’re on track, companies should inward to their people.

It all starts with the culture of the company. After all, when people aren’t really on board, it’s tough to get anywhere. If one of your company’s goals is to make genuine progress, then you must think about sustainability in terms of the people who make up your employee base.

Culture is a tricky subject. It’s intangible, and when something is hard to define, it’s hard to address, improve or measure. Accordingly, here are a few simple tips. Certainly this is not an exhaustive list, but these techniques will help any company — regardless of where they are — to go further.

1: Involve everyone in defining what sustainability means to your company

Depending on how you see the world, it can be maddening or exhilarating that there is no one-size-fits-all definition for sustainability. While no one can tell you what sustainability should mean for your company, this also creates the opportunity for dialogue. Have conversations inside your company and involve as many people as you can. The more input you get, the more likely you are to get buy-in. These conversations will help everyone feel ownership of the final outcome. Even companies that have established a clear definition of what sustainability means to and for them can benefit from revisiting their definition. The final result is important, but the conversations internally will yield enormous dividends.

Once you have the definition agreed up, take good care to communicate it to everyone. In order to facilitate this process, consider appointing an internal council comprised of employees representing as many parts of the business as possible. Not only will these people help make sure there is a diversity of perspective represented in discussions, they will also be terrific internal ambassadors once the definition is established or revised, further helping carry the message internally.

2: Let go of the need to specialize — generalize

Hiring people with specialist experience into specialist roles is safe, but it might be dangerous. An army of specialists can create a proliferation of silos and decrease collaboration. As it relates to sustainability, the consequences can be significant. Sustainability is a generalist topic; it's more of a corporate discipline, rather than a corporate function. To create a culture of sustainable performance, companies need people that are cross-functional collaborators; they need generalists more than specialists. Hire and promote generalists to cut across the vertical silos, bring people together and drive a culture of cooperation on sustainability. This will have the benefit of creating a solid corps of critical thinkers who can be rotated into different jobs as a way to advance the sustainability agenda along they way, diffusing institutional knowledge throughout the company.

This is easier said than done, because it requires human resources leaders and recruiters to come outside of their comfort zones. One simple way to start this process is to put people in HR that have no background in HR and charter them to think about development of generalists as an organizational goal. Without being inculcated in the ‘normal’ way of doing things, the barriers to doing things differently will be much lower.

3: Look outside your organization

The best companies often are the ones that know that they still have a lot to learn. Only by letting go of the need to be seen as the best can companies have enough collective humility to build a culture of learning and intellectual curiosity. Bring fresh perspectives into your company to keep the ideas flowing. Sustainability is a new way of thinking about old topics. And in a field with so much novelty, there is so much still to learn. In sustainability, the best aren’t that far ahead and the worst aren’t that far behind. There is an incredibly compressed learning curve. Encourage your employees to find their counterparts in other organizations and talk to them, to learn and to share what they learn. Bring good ideas from outside the company inside. No matter how well your company is performing, you can always learn. Set this tone within the company. Companies can and should join industry associations and peer networking communities. Before doing so, the participating employees should develop a plan and get approval for how they will bring the ideas back into the company and share them with everyone. This will increase the ownership at the individual level and the value returned at the company level.

4: Talk to your competitors

Many of the aspects of sustainability are pre-competitive. In fact, you probably have more common cause with your competitors on the range of issues within sustainability than you do ground for suspicion. If for no other reason, regulators tend to look at whole industries, and improved performance for any company in and industry makes life easier for every company in the industry. In this way, opening dialogues with your competitors is actually self-serving; if they improve, it’s benefits you directly. Companies can and should compete in the markets, but as it pertains to sustainability, demonstrating to your people that even your competitors have something useful to say on sustainability will set the tone for a culture of honesty and openness. Having CEOs of competitors come out to issue joint statements on the importance of sustainability would certainly go a long way to establishing this cultural value.

5: Stop being negative — be positive.

It’s hard sometimes, but companies must stay away from negativity when discussing sustainability, either internally or externally. Shaming or criticizing people for lack of compliance to or support of sustainability only serves to shut them down. This is easier said than done; the consequences of many of the big-picture issues are quite dire. It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of speaking to the consequences of behaviors. In building a culture around sustainable performance, companies must stick to the positive. Thank people for their support, encourage engagement, and talk to the positive outcomes associated with behaviors. Negativity and fear are a final line of defense if nothing else is working, and should be used accordingly. But to create momentum, people work better when they feel good. Companies should appoint a project manager to evaluate all of their communications. gauge them for tone and look for opportunities to shift the messaging when and where appropriate.

No matter where a company is on its sustainability journey, it can go further. The more its people are aligned, the faster the progress. In trying to set goals for your company, thinking about them in terms of people will help ensure success.

This post first appeared in FastCoExist on October 17, 2013.


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