This is the fourth, and final, piece summarizing findings from the JMJ/Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Sustainability: Corporate culture and leadership perspectives. As well as sharing a visual representation of findings from the survey phase of the study, we offer some conclusions from the research as a whole.
The aim of the corporate sustainability study was to understand how businesses work from the inside, which relationships and mindsets are important, and which corporate environments foster interest in, and commitment to, sustainability. Our research was divided into three stages: a series of semi-structured interviews, a focus group, and a survey. For each phase, participants were drawn from a range of businesses and sectors. The results highlight which issues and concerns are most pressing, and recur across businesses, as well as some areas of difference.
The visual below summarizes key findings from the third phase of the study, the survey. Responses came from various sectors: transport, financial services, consultancy, clothing, energy, computer technology, engineering, chemicals, communications, and others. The majority (78%) were from large organizations (over 250 employees) and most (59%) identified as C-suite personnel or senior management. 31% had middle management or supervisory roles.
Conclusions from the JMJ/Bennett Institute sustainability study
The results of the research do not always point to consensus – there are not many one size fits all answers. Different goals, priorities, and even definitions, of sustainability are likely to be associated with different sectors, industries, and business models. Nevertheless, certain ideas about corporate leadership and culture emerged and reappeared throughout the research. While several points of disagreement or tension became especially noteworthy.
Carbon-related issues form an increasingly prominent part of corporate sustainability. Still, for most businesses, the most important sustainability consideration is economic – that is, ensuring a company can survive financially into the future.
Leaders are critical to the success of corporate sustainability. Not only because they tend to set a company’s overarching policy directions, but also because their authority allows them to shield sustainability commitments when other business pressures threaten to undermine or marginalize them. The passion and commitment of senior executives is therefore an instrumental internal driver of sustainability, and leaders who do not know what they want to achieve are a major drag on their company’s sustainability efforts.
The tone and temperament of a business is usually set in or by an organization’s upper echelons, and senior executives are advised to lead change from the top. This means questions of leadership are inextricably linked to questions of corporate culture.
People are the basis for culture. Not all employees or partners will (at least at first) be sold on the need or viability of corporate sustainability. However, senior executives (as well as other employees) are capable of shaping culture and driving cultural change.
It is important that leaders foster environments in which different voices – sustainability sceptics, but also socially progressive younger employees and decision-makers in middle management – can be raised and heard. Open and inclusive cultures are more amenable to learning, development, education and experimentation. Bringing employees along on a company’s sustainability journey is preferable to simply commanding that they start acting or working in new and unexplained ways.
A similar attitude might be adopted with an organization’s external stakeholders – that is, companies should be open and receptive to the insights and challenges of their particular stakeholders. The most influential and consequential were said to be customers, employees, investors, regulators and clients. For the most part, businesses engage proactively with their most influential stakeholders, and reactively with their less influential, like communities or third-sector organizations. It was nevertheless recommended that companies convene regular stakeholder panels to ensure proactive engagement occurs across the board.
How should employees or people associated with an organization convince leaders to take sustainability seriously? One answer is to ensure leaders’ sense of identity is closely linked to the future, rather than the past practices of an organization. As part of this, senior executives should be reminded that their authority gives them the chance to shape a legacy, either within the company or in society more broadly, and that sustainability practices can help them achieve this.
It is important to think about the relationship between sustainability and an organization’s broader purpose. Aligning sustainability with the business’ sense of purpose may not, alone, be enough to guarantee its success. However, without such alignment, corporate sustainability is unlikely to succeed.
Aside from these (more or less) general guidelines, what matters is that businesses (and their leaders) understand the particular conditions they are operating in, both inside and outside of their organizations. That means understanding how and where their businesses make money, and their internal capacities. It also means knowing how the actions their business take will affect (or not) the broader sustainability landscape. That way, the decisions taken by leaders will be maximally effective – exploiting their organization’s particular operational capacities and dynamics to best serve their sustainability agenda. To help cultivate this culture of inquiry and development, businesses should prioritize transparency; disclosing sustainability data, even if not perfect.
All companies are different, and what works for one will not necessarily work for another. Discovering what works for a particular company must be a priority for leaders now, and for the next years and decades.
The Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge is one of the UK’s leading public policy institutes, achieving significant impact through its commitment to interdisciplinary academic and policy research and teaching. It is driving forward research into the growing demand for a more equitable distribution of the world’s natural and social assets and examining the impact that technological change is having on the nature of work, community and consumption around the world. The Institute is committed to outstanding teaching, policy engagement, and devising sustainable and long-lasting solutions. For more information visit bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk
For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com
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