It’s personal: CEOs and sustainability

by May 25, 2017

I spent the better part of the week at the annual Sustainable Brands conference. Among the many interesting stories and ideas shared were some insights from Andrew Winston and John Izzo about the common themes among CEOs who are committed to sustainability. They were reporting out on research/interviews they conducted with CEOs who “get it” about sustainability.
Here’s what I took away:
  1. Personal history matters. Most of the CEOs who are committed to sustainability could tell a story about an experience in their lives that grounded them in their commitment. It might have been a story about a childhood experience in the outdoors, or something related to their kids or grandkids. But most had something happen to ground them in a sense of mission and higher purpose about the future of the environment.
  2. Somebody asked them a question they hadn’t asked themselves. For some, a well-timed question like, “What will your grandkids say you left behind for them?” or “How will history remember your greatest contribution as CEO?” or even, “What’s the purpose of your company beyond making money?” has caused some CEOs to dig deeper and land on a commitment to sustainability.
  3. They got convinced by the business case. We’ve spent years hearing from our clients, “Can you help me make the business case for sustainability?” And, yes, we can and we have. But I can tell you our focus in that case has been on savings – water and energy savings, primarily. According to Andrew and John, the most convincing piece of a business case is the piece about how important and motivating a commitment to the environment is to employees – both current and future ones. Most CEOs will place “struggle to find and keep top talent” in their top 5 list of challenges, so if they grow to believe that sustainability offers a tool to help them deal with that struggle, they’re in.
  4. Seeing environmental impacts first-hand. Former Walmart CEO Lee Scott started the drive toward sustainability after being moved by the plight of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina – and by his associates’ proactive, selfless responses in the face of that disaster. I’ve heard that Carter Roberts at WWF got the Coca-Cola CEO deeply committed to sustainability by getting him on a plane and taking him to see polar ice caps melting (not sure if I’ve got that story exactly right). The point is, and behavioral scientists will tell you this too, when we see the problem with our own eyes (vs. hearing about it in a PowerPoint presentation), we’re much more moved to respond.
  5. Competition and recognition. Andrew and John both seemed surprised that for the CEOs they talked to, these were both highly motivating factors. CEOs are competitive people, so they can be moved to consider initiatives and commitments that hadn’t been on their radar by realizing their competitors are way ahead of them on it. They can also be moved by seeing a competitor CEO get widely recognized/lauded for it. They’d rather be recognized themselves.
So if you want to work to get your CEO on board with sustainability, the recommendations are:
  1. Take him/her to go and see the problem first-hand.
  2. Pass along a book that makes the case (Ray Anderson’s book was a suggestion … I’m also a fan of Andrew Winston’s work, which he was too modest to recommend in his own session).
  1. Ask a well-timed, thoughtful question – in particular, ask about their legacy.
  2. Get your CEO a mentor or reverse mentor (a bright Millennial who won’t be afraid to tell it like it is).

As always, drop me a note if I can help you think this through. In my experience, the companies making the most progress on the environment – and building their brands and selling more products as a result of that commitment – are the ones where the CEOs are committed. You just can’t make the same progress if middle management is trying to push it up. It works WAY better if it comes from the top down.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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