Sustainability Matters: Lessons For the CEO

What do chief executives and senior managers think about sustainability and what strategies do they follow to implement sustainability practices? In a new series called The Sustainable Organization, global accounting and consulting firm Accenture takes a look at sustainability implications for each senior management position, starting with the CEO.

Sustainability - lessons for CEOs

Its interviews with leaders from global businesses are an opportunity to understand how they (think they) are tackling the sustainability agenda.

First of all, the consulting firm notes, “there is little disagreement among C-suite executives of the importance of sustainability as a key factor of the future success of their organisations. Where the difficulty arises is in how to actually implement this, given relatively low levels of maturity on sustainability in business management today.

For organisations seeking to outperform the market over the long-term, a clear driver of high performance will be their ability to embed sustainability effectively across all aspects of their business.”

Just like the chief financial officer needs to know how to assess the value of sustainability initiatives in order to present it to external stakeholders, the chief strategy officer needs to have a good idea of external and internal forces influencing business operations and the chief procurement officer needs to establish new rules and metrics for how buying decisions are made.

Sustainable Organization: Chief Executive Officer

The job of the chief executive, Accenture notes, is all about finding answers to the following questions:

  • How can sustainability deliver new value to the organization?
  • How can that value be translated into a headline vision for sustainability, but with practical and achievable objectives for all key stakeholders?
  • What is the most effective organizational structure to support the embedding of sustainability?
  • Does a centralized or decentralized approach makes most sense to execute on this?
  • What needs to be done to ensure that sustainability doesn’t get lost within individual departments?
  • Which are the key roles that the chief executive officer needs to collaborate with to deliver on these issues?

Some of the suggestions made in Accenture’s report The Chief Executive Officer’s Perspective:

  • Where possible, make sustainability part of how your organization generates its competitive advantage.
  • Make it a core business strategy, rather than a sideline functional strategy.
  • Create board-level responsibility for sustainability, whether centralized or decentralized, rather than trying to parcel it off into a sideline function.
  • Assess which sustainability metrics make sense for the future of your business, whether quantitative or qualitative. Be creative: new measures may need to be invented here to capture the core of this.
  • Get the performance management right: set targets, ensure buy-in and understanding of those, and then focus your team on meeting those.
  • Treat this as an organization-wide change project and make sure that the key leaders in your  management team understand what you want from them. Guidance and education may be needed here.

In the end, as Peter Graf (chief sustainability officer at SAP) points out, all aspiring and acting corporate leaders need to understand that:

“Sustainability is neither about sacrificing the present for the sake of the future nor the other way around. It’s about finding the right balance between short and long-term considerations. Once businesses embrace this perspective, they start using business arguments to understand and maximize their long-term success, while having the short-term under tight control.”

Picture credit: (creative commons)

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