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Building the Sustainability Brand Within

When we think about sustainability strategy we typically think about a series of initiatives around energy efficiency, waste reduction, and product redesign. But our traditional focus on carbon audits and generating Corporate Sustainability Reports (CSR), while important, emphasizes data collection and does not necessarily engage people in ways that generate synergy and build scale. Few companies capitalize on the opportunities sustainability provides for widespread employee engagement and improving the company culture – in effect, “building the brand within.”

Since sustainability touches so many aspects of the business, effective sustainability strategies require active engagement by people throughout the organization. Herein lies opportunity for both sustainability leaders and their HR and Talent brethren. Sustainability leaders have an opportunity to engage HR and Talent leaders as partners to push sustainability initiatives on a broad scale. And, HR/Talent leaders have an opportunity to help develop the new skills and people engagement strategies needed to address the range of opportunities presented.  

How Should We Measure Success?

There are many business drivers behind sustainability – reducing costs, increasing revenue, protecting company reputation, etc. Recent thinking advocates moving away from a singular focus on project-based ROI to a more fully developed composite ROI that truly reflects a portfolio-based approach to sustainability planning. 

But, do we fully understand the role of people and relevant business metrics such as talent retention, attraction, and performance motivation?  Given that over 70% of total annual corporate spending is spent on people, improving these talent metrics can have a major economic impact on the corporate bottom line. The more sustainability can help cultivate superior talent and performance, the better.

Research shows that employees increasingly seek affiliation with organizations that reflect their values and that highly engaged employees outperform their disengaged colleagues by 20 – 28% (Conference Board, 2006).  But, consider what some companies face in the post-recession rebound as ‘voluntary’ employee departures begin to follow the wave of ‘involuntary’ layoffs companies relied on to survive the downturn.  How can sustainability reshape company culture as a core attitude or way of thinking about the business in order to achieve bottom line results as well as be more competitive in the marketplace for talent?

Companies need new approaches and ‘best practice’ guidelines to better align their people around broad scale sustainability issues.  Here are three ‘best practices’ you can use to help achieve this:  1.) role-based training, 2.) leveraging and nurturing emerging ‘green teams’, and 3.) building sustainability into the talent strategy of the company.

Where to Start – Role Based Training

Mobilizing employees around sustainability starts with basic awareness-building and training. Unlike compliance and other mandatory training, where topics seem rote and even cautionary in nature, sustainability is a new and exciting topic, and taps into strongly felt employee values and beliefs. Companies like P&G have already initiated programs to train its people. They’ve identified key roles – marketing, R&D, product teams, and supply chain operations – and have developed role-based training solutions for each. Making training role-based makes sustainability more applicable to the business and specific job functions. A planning framework for relevant sustainability learning topics is provided below.

Figure 1. Learning Plan Framework

Learning Plan FrameworkLeverage Emerging ‘Green Team’ Behaviors

Employee-driven ‘green teams’ are emerging as self-forming communities of practice inspired by a common passion around the environment and other corporate responsibility principles.  Unfortunately, many efforts are ad hoc and fragmented, or are knee-jerk attempts to accomplish tasks that are otherwise under-funded.  Moreover, some ‘green team’ proponents seek to operate ‘under the radar’ for fear of interference.  While concerns are sometimes justified, this is the wrong perspective to foster. ‘Green teams’ can be a powerful catalyst for building a culture of sustainability and can also serve as a competitive differentiator in attracting and retaining top talent. To be effective green teams need management support and need to be better aligned with corporate strategic interests. Companies like eBay and Autodesk have realigned green team initiatives to be more strategic, resulting in greater participation and upscaled results.

Link Sustainability to Talent Strategy

Green teams are an indication that sustainability is happening at the grassroots level. There are important links between this emerging behavior with talent strategy and culture change. Green teams can contribute new ideas and innovations, pilot new products or services, find ways to be more efficient and reduce costs. These outcomes provide real business benefits and the skills that produce them should be factored into the competency model that companies use for hiring, development, performance reviews, and promotion.

Once these skills or behavioral outcomes are mapped into the competency framework, HR and Talent leaders start to look for ways to train and develop these competencies, further embedding them into the fabric of the company. This is where talent leadership and sustainability leadership converge to ‘build the brand within’ around sustainability and make the company a better place to work for its people and a better corporate citizen.

Figure 2. Talent Management Framework: “Sustainability becomes anchored in job definition, development, performance reviews and compensation, in essence tying sustainability principles into an integrated talent management lifecycle.”

Talent Management Lifecycle


Sustainability and training

Thanks for this article. The role of learning is frequently overlooked by sustainability experts and this provides a helpful framework. During a recent webinar, recent efforts at employee engagement were described as being like 'throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.' Not good.

Grant Ricketts is CEO and Co-founder of Tripos Software, Inc. The company provides content, software tools, and services to educate and engage people in sustainability initiatives, deepening their awareness about sustainable business practices, and provide visibility into sustainability performance. Prior… [Read more about Grant Ricketts]

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