In our previous post, on supporting your CEO, we discussed some tactics sustainability change agents can employ to help shape their CEO’s decision making on sustainability. We were also curious to know what these CEOs thought about the personal characteristics of effective change agents. One theme that emerged from our conversations with over 100 CEOs, board members, and sustainability executives from a range of global companies was knowing how to challenge your CEO while keeping your passion in check.
Effective change agents know how to engage in challenging conversations with their CEO
It’s impossible to effect change without challenging the status quo – and that can often mean challenging your CEO’s position. CEOs told us the key is to do it respectfully, and be willing to challenge your own thinking as well.
“To bring about change, you sometimes need to destabilize your CEO, because you know about something where he doesn’t have the same expertise. When you destabilize that hierarchy, then you become the authority - then he starts trusting you to make the right call. Often people that report in to a CEO are uncomfortable to do that. … But It’s in the how. You obviously have to be conscious of the fact that you don’t take on every little battle and you don’t fight every little one - you save it for the bigger one. Then you position the more important discussions and the more important things. You don’t want to be labelled as someone who changes for the sake of change.”
“Destabilizing your CEO” may sound daunting, but several that we spoke with felt it was necessary in order to establish yourself as an expert in the field, and in order to gain their trust. Savvy change agents have the courage to come forth and express a diverging opinion – especially in cases where their knowledge exceeds that of the CEO. After all, they are in their position because their particular expertise is valuable to the company.
As one CEO puts it:
“That team that you have as your support team - you’ve got to be tight with, and they’ve got to be able to challenge you and you’ve got to be able to challenge them.”
Effective change agents harness their passion, keeping their emotions in check
Sustainability is a topic that has been debated for years, and is one many people feel passionate about from multiple perspectives. Passion is laudable, especially for those who make it their career. But all the passion in the world won’t help you in challenging your CEO unless you also come across as collected and competent.
According to one CEO:
“People that are more rational, and can talk more logically and can talk well, are a better fit. As opposed to these hyper entrepreneurs that can’t really put their thoughts in words but actually have a very good idea. They do battle to get their message through in the system and they often get very frustrated in the business. Unfortunately, a CEO finds a more rational conversation appeals and a more rational and thoughtful person breaks through, maybe a little bit easier.”
Savvy sustainability change agents know how to form logical and cohesive arguments first, then infuse them with just the right amount of passion to make them compelling. Failing to do this, and speaking purely from the heart instead of the head, can erode your credibility and make it less likely that you’ll be able to influence your CEO’s thinking. You may be able to win the CEO on passion, but the CEO then needs to convince the executive team and the Board – and that can’t be on passion alone.
As another CEO reinforces:
“You’ve got to bring me more than emotions. It’s important to you, sure, great - that’s why we have you in this position - but channel that. When it comes to me, it needs to be about the business.”