What happens if your super-Sustainability-champion-of-a-CEO suddenly announces their retirement? How do you make sure your Sustainability programme survives the inevitable upheaval? It was questions like this that my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group considered recently in the gorgeous and historic surroundings of the Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle.

The Masterminds chose three such upheavals to discuss and below is a selection of the resulting learning points. As we operate under the Chatham House rules, the identity of the members and the conversation leading up the generic points has not been recorded.

Change in the C-suite

  • Research the incomer’s background (eg via LinkedIn) and tailor your pitch to their interests (ie Green Jujitsu) for example, talking $ to someone with a CFO past;
  • Embed Sustainability so deeply and overtly that any incoming CXO knows exactly what they’re getting themselves in for (and the ‘wrong type’ doesn’t apply);
  • In particular, have commitment and coherent message coming from rest of C-suite and senior management;
  • Align Sustainability Strategy to the business case as it applies to your organisation so backpedalling is counter-productive to the business;
  • Stick to the plan until you are told otherwise; you don’t need permission to do Sustainability;
  • A new face may bring new opportunities to address issues which weren’t on the agenda before.

Supply Chain Disruption

  • Stop, breathe, and take time to understand the situation, then act quickly;
  • Preparation: assess risks, have contingencies in place and use them;
  • Circular economy could reduce risk as it is often materials sources are often local;
  • Avoid sole suppliers and engage suppliers in risk management;
  • Build robustness into new contracts;
  • Can use disruption as an opportunity to innovate.

Loss of Sustainability Resource

  • Can be tension between use of mainstream and sustainability budgets; general principle is that projects should be considered for mainstream funding first, then sustainability if it fails those criteria;
  • Mainstream investment appraisal should be structured to assess and reward Sustainability factors;
  • Prioritise projects with the best business case to keep momentum going;
  • Ensure many Sustainability functions are distributed across organisation so can continue autonomously;
  • Plan well ahead with HR and Finance;
  • Succession planning;

General Robustness Themes

  • Embed sustainability in as diffuse a way as possible – make it impossible to unpick;
  • ‘Stay out of jail’ is the strongest business case;
  • People don’t like losing certificates – an extra lever for action;
  • Build a bank of IOUs by being as helpful to as many people as possible;
  • ‘Environment’ or ‘Compliance’ can be a stronger word than ‘Sustainability’ in job titles etc – the latter can be perceived as somewhat ephemeral.

We have a vacancy in the Group – if you are a sustainability practitioner in a large organisation and want to learn from the best (i.e. your peers) in a supportive environment, drop me a line. Please note the group is not suitable for consultants.


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