Coming out of the recent COP26 Summit, there has been a renewed focus on actions countries can take to meet targets for net-zero emissions in the years ahead. So, let’s imagine this scenario: CEOs across the globe have also renewed their business strategies to meet ambitious sustainability goals for their organizations. The desire to make change happen is high and all leaders know that action is needed, not just more words.

And yet, when it’s time for leaders to start moving the sustainability needle, the most important changemakers—their own people—are often overlooked.

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Organizational culture is more than the sum of its parts

Too often, people think company culture is set in stone, especially at large organizations with thousands of employees. And up until recently, “purpose” was often seen as being at odds with growth and profitability. This was a huge barrier to push through, especially for the employees who ultimately had to make change happen on the ground.

Today, we know that culture is malleable. It can be shaped and reshaped as circumstances change and put in the service of a greater purpose, like sustainability.

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Accenture’s Shaping the Sustainable Organization research shows that when your very purpose is rooted in becoming a sustainable organization, that vision will inspire your people to work toward shared goals and behaviors. 

How the CEO embraces this purpose is key for the entire enterprise, as I discussed with Peter Lacy, Chief Responsibility Officer and Global Sustainability Services Lead, and others at the COP26 Summit. According to our research, nearly half (46%) of CEOs say they are putting their people first, as a core strategy. This move pays off. The same study found that CEOs who hold themselves and their teams accountable for meeting their people’s holistic needs are 1.2x more likely than their peers to project revenue “hypergrowth” of 10% or more.

We have a name for this approach: Sustainability DNA. It’s a set of practices, systems and processes that shape behaviors and decision-making to achieve more concrete outcomes. Your people are the essential link in strengthening Sustainability DNA, if you empower them appropriately. Here are a few ways to get you started.

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 3 steps to build sustainability within your organization

1. Assess and champion your people’s values and needs

When you acknowledge often unheard groups of people within your own organization, you foster the human connections needed to make change happen. But if you lack two-way communication channels, you can’t nurture these human connections and so you miss clear signals from your people.

One way we are seeing this disconnect play out is the difference in perception between leadership and employees when it comes to sustainable goals or work models. For example, in our latest sustainability report—Perception is reality—while 68% of executives say they have developed a “robust” sustainability plan, only 21% of employees say their employer’s commitment goes beyond the “superficial.” There is also a disconnect between employee and executive feelings about returning to the office in the wake of the pandemic.

When you embrace hybrid work models, you acknowledge essential demands from your people—and ultimately, your stakeholders. Here’s a real-world example. The French company VINCI successfully empowered its people to fight discrimination and foster equality (p. 21). They built an online learning experience to help managers better their understanding of potentially discriminatory practices. The tool lets people benchmark their current progress and come up with roadmaps for improvement, in a way that took their concerns and daily realities into account

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2. Create decision-making processes focused on diverse stakeholders

Another way to enlist your people to be changemakers is to introduce practices that help organizations make better decisions for different stakeholders. When people are aware of the views and needs of all stakeholders, the collective intelligence of the organization is better. You also give your people a sense of agency to contribute meaningfully.

SWEN Capital Partners empowered its people to help meet sustainability goals with the launch of the first European investment fund dedicated to renewable gases (p.23). All of the fund’s projects must contribute to the energy transition and, crucially, must create broader Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) values for all stakeholders. That is in addition to being financially profitable.

The company measures this extra financial impact with a dedicated ESG team. They develop project-specific metrics and analysis, supported by on-site, face-to-face meetings with stakeholders wherever possible.

3. Build accountability at all levels in your organization

Ultimately, empowering your people is about bringing everyone along for the ride. All too often, sustainability goals are limited to being the responsibility of executive committees and senior leadership rather than being shared at all levels. Leadership teams must make responsible and sustainable leadership the norm across the business to build a roadmap for sustainable growth with a clear set of KPIs to balance value and impact.

Royal DSM —a global, purpose-led company focused on nutrition, health and sustainable living—established such company-wide norms by building a strong risk management framework (p. 24). Their systematic internal reporting process flags both material risks as well as material incidents to the Managing Board. In addition to disclosing its top risks, the company goes a step further by creating a section in its integrated annual report called “What still went wrong.” This section outlines the most significant incidents of the previous year and shares the steps taken to fix the situation.

Take the pulse of your sustainability DNA

These three steps are a great way to get started toward unleashing the power of your company’s Sustainability DNA.

Let’s revisit the scenario we started with: After the COP26 Summit, company leaders come back to their organizations and incorporate the three steps highlighted above to inspire cultural change. A great starting point is to assess your own Sustainability DNA with this simple but powerful diagnostic tool. With the help of this tool, you can bring all your stakeholders together to turn responsible values into sustainable outcomes.

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Christie Smith

Lead – Talent & Organization/Human Potential

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