In previous articles, we’ve discussed key findings from JMJ and Bennett Institute’s research paper, ‘Sustainability: Corporate Culture and Leadership Perspectives,” and looked more closely at what the study reveals from the senior executive’s point of view. This time, we take a closer look at the second phase of the study, the focus group.
A focus group consisting mainly of personnel from sustainability departments was held online to discuss key questions about corporate sustainability. The group revisited some of the themes from the interviews phase of the study. The aim was to understand how businesses work from the inside, which relationships and mindsets are important and which corporate environments foster a commitment to sustainability.
As sustainability is an evolving idea, it can be defined in diverse ways, our focus group echoed the views put forward during the interview phase. One participant defined it as ‘the triple bottom line,’ claiming its different elements – social, environmental, and financial – needed to be balanced to account for changes in geographical context and short- and long-term priorities. Another participant named ‘three pillars’ of sustainability, environmental, social, and economic. A third participant presented a stewardship perspective on sustainability, whereby ‘you leave the firm in a better state…than you found it.’
This explicitly business-first perspective still involves moving away from a pure financial focus to a much broader definition of value, encompassing people, clients, and social value.”
Summary of findings
Clarity and inclusivity are really important. We have to bring stakeholders along on the journey with us and make their voice heard.”
- Investors, regulators, supply chain partners and other key stakeholders all influence an organization’s sustainability strategy
- There are divisions on how companies engage with them – reactively or proactively
Every employee has a role to play in the fulfillment of a corporate sustainability strategy. Leaders must set the direction, management must take decisions and employees must be interested in, and committed to, sustainability.”
- Winning over senior managers – and non-executive directors in particular – is important for getting corporate sustainability off the ground
- The impetus for change often comes from younger, socially engaged, employees
- Middle management’s importance in the success of a sustainability strategy is often overlooked
- Leaders must have clear sustainability objectives and understand the workings of their businesses to affect the necessary changes
Having leaders who are sold on the value and efficacy of sustainability is essential. Leaders can’t fake this; it has to be genuine.”
- Leaders should cultivate open and inclusive work environments to ensure ideas and policies get a proper hearing
- Leadership must be genuinely invested in sustainability to ensure other business priorities don’t take over
- It helps to focus leaders’ attention on the future of the company and their personal legacy
- It’s critical to demonstrate the commercial upsides of sustainability
Companies (and their leaders) should try to understand their own corporate culture to make sure their sustainability priorities are compatible with the organization’s values and collective mindset.”
- A culture of openness and learning is key to corporate sustainability
- Businesses must have a clear understanding of their culture to maximize the efficiency of sustainability work
- Having a clear sense of corporate purpose is important for sustainability
The interviews and the focus group agreed that it is strategically smart to characterize sustainability as a business opportunity – a means to establish market advantage or an economic windfall. At the same time, a more purpose-driven approach is likely to prioritize the social or environmental upshots of sustainability, not as the basis for subsequent financial gain, but as ends in themselves.
This tension between selling sustainability as good business, and pursuing a more purpose-driven business model, is not necessarily a problem, nor does it undermine the utility of either approach. It could mean both options are worth pursuing, or that their respective suitability depends on the sector or institutional culture or some other variable. These ideas and arguments are live and being contested, and people in business are trying to understand them in real time.
Read the first article in this series: New study identifies leadership and culture as the catalysts to successful corporate sustainability
Read the second article in this series: Senior leaders believe sustainability is critical to their organizations’ survival
About the Bennett Institute
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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