Guest Post: The Continuity of Sustainability

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Guest Post: The Continuity of Sustainability

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Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:00pm

The Network for Business Sustainability recently articulated their “Top 10” sustainability challenges for Canadian business in 2013. I think many readers will probably agree these challenges face businesses around the globe as well.

One challenge in particular caught my attention, in light of some of the challenges I‘ve encountered myself, working with public and private sector companies in Canada and internationally:  How can companies keep their long-term sustainability agenda on track despite leadership changes?

I have witnessed several examples of disrupted sustainability agendas, even among organizations that had done a phenomenal amount of work to advance sustainability.  In my experience, it is typically the departure of a committed CEO or Board chair that leads to gradual erosion and sidelining – sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent – of corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives over time, often accompanied by a sense of frustration among team members and stakeholders.

In my view, this challenge highlights the critical need to differentiate between operational and cultural integration of sustainability. Most discussion papers and guidance pertaining to sustainability integration deal mainly with the integration of sustainability into business processes:  this is operational integration.  However, operational integration must not be mistaken for cultural integration.  Cultural integration involves the integration of sustainability into corporate vision and values, and the embodiment of those values in the behaviour of individuals within the organization. Both are critical success factors to advance a sustainability agenda over the long term, and indeed they are complementary.

Can you have cultural integration without operational integration?  Sure, but there’s a good chance the sustainability agenda will not be fully realized.  We’ve probably all seen examples of organizations populated by well-meaning individuals who share a belief in the need to be more sustainable, but whose efforts are stymied by the lack of effective integration of sustainability considerations into routine business processes.

Conversely, you can have operational integration without cultural integration, although this is usually more difficult to recognize.  In this situation too, the sustainability agenda is unlikely to be fully achieved.  Operational integration without cultural integration can happen when an organization reactively pursues a sustainability agenda – perhaps in response to stakeholder pressure or a perceived reputational risk – without taking the time to understand why, and to develop a clear, thoughtful, and shared vision.  A committed leader may also achieve a degree of operational integration through sheer strength of character, but may overlook the importance of ensuring their executive colleagues and the Board, not to mention the employees at large, share their vision.

It is where cultural integration is lagging that the sustainability agenda is most at risk of become derailed during and after a change in leadership.

Organizational vision and values are fundamentals that will guide an organization through times of change.  It is therefore worth taking the time to carefully consider the reasons for pursuing sustainability and crafting a sustainability agenda that is aligned with and supportive of the organization’s vision and values.  An organization that values sustainability leadership as part of its culture, and considers sustainability to be a core part of its strategic vision is more likely to enjoy continuity in its sustainability agenda, even through a change in leadership.

One way to enhance cultural integration is to have broad engagement with the Board, the executive/management team, and employees during development of the long-term sustainability agenda, particularly with respect to ensuring alignment of the sustainability agenda with the organization’s vision.  This increases not only understanding and buy-in across the organization, but improves operational integration as well.

The greater the degree of cultural integration, particularly among the Board and executive, the more likely it will be that commitment to sustainability will be a factor in the consideration of new leadership candidates.  This, too, will do much to assure the continuity of sustainability in the midst of change.

What do you think?  I invite you to share your experiences and ideas here, by clicking on the Write Comment tab, or join the discussion in the Canadian CSR and SD Practitioners Network on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Check out the Network for Business Sustainability here: http://nbs.net

Read about the Top 10 Challenges for Canadian Business in 2013 here: http://nbs.net/knowledge/top-10-sustainability-challenges-for-canadian-business-in-2013/ 

Follow the Network for Business Sustainability on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NBSnet

I’m a consultant, with some 20 years of experience in environmental assessment, regulatory affairs, corporate responsibility, and sustainability.  I’ve been involved in projects across Canada and internationally, including China and the Middle East, for clients in the energy, mining, infrastructure, transportation, and government sectors, providing both strategic advice and practical implementation support.  I strive for transformational corporate responsibility wherever possible.

This post originally appeared on the Making Sense of Responsibility Blog. Posted with permission of the author.