How to Engage and Convince the C-Suite about Corporate Sustainability

by | Sep 27, 2011

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Corporate sustainability makes a lot of sense. Reduce your costs and risk, increase profit, strengthen reputation, protect and conserve natural resources and social value while enhancing share value…what’s not to love?  So why is it that so many internal sustainability champions struggle to move their initiatives forward?  Perhaps it’s not the proposition at all – maybe it’s the approach.

I was determined to find the answer; after all, if I could understand what prevented the C-Suite from immediately grasping and acting upon the sustainability proposition I would become a more effective advisor.  So I convened a round table of like-minded sustainability colleagues to learn why the C-Suite moved so slowly on the sustainability front and here is what I found:

•    It delayed the process.  As the old political axiom goes, “if you don’t know, delay – and maybe the ask will go away.”
•    Change is most often rejected when presented head-on.
•    Sustainability is regarded by many as just a “tick-box” exercise.
•    Competing for resources with a known entity (aka business as usual) with known returns is a tough slog.

With this knowledge in hand I developed several ways to overcome the obstacles.  It is worth noting that many solutions are more about politics and polish than sustainability knowledge.  So, if you find yourself facing down the steely or indifferent gaze of one or more C-suite executives, ask yourself, are they arguing the merits of the proposal or simply not swayed by my approach?

Depending on your role in the organization, some solutions will be more effective than others, and some may be totally inapplicable – but they all start here: preparation!

Know your audience

Before any proposal or meeting, ensure you have done your homework.  There are the fundamentals: What am I presenting?  What is my ask? What do I need to do to secure my ask?  But you must also know to whom you are presenting.  Meet with the decision-makers beforehand – whether it is one executive, the management team, the group executive or the entire Board of Directors – and work to understand where they sit.  Are they promoters (supporters of the idea), neutral (sitting on the fence) or detractors (active dissenters)?  If you are lucky enough to find promoters, use them as your allies within the room.  You may find that they will champion your position and battle the detractors. If you aren’t so lucky and realize that your ask probably won’t fly, you’ll need to execute a mid-course correction before presenting anything to anyone.

I once walked into a C-suite meeting after having conducted my pre-meeting due diligence. My line of promoters was formed and standing at attention.  However, in the face of vociferous opposition from their colleagues, I watched my most ardent supporters retreat.  What was I to do?  I had to re-establish my line, and quick.  “That’s an interesting point,” I said to the head of HR, aka Detractor No. 1. “When the COO and I were talking we hashed that out.  COO, do you recall when you mentioned the merits of…?” I said turning to my now reinvigorated promoter.  And the game was back on.

Another technique I’ve used is the “feel, felt, found” approach.  “I understand how you feel, others have felt the same way, but we’ve found…”  To this day I use it in emails and conversations as an effective redirection technique.

Align with their priorities

But how do you get someone to be a supporter in the first place?  Sure, people might love the idea and “get it”, but emotions seldom play into practical business realities.  The most important element is that you understand the C-Suite’s business and strategic priorities – and align your ask to demonstrate how it will support the delivery of their objectives.

You should also try to understand their personal performance objectives.  What milestones must each individual reach to ensure his/her year-end bonus is maximized?  If you can help someone meet his/her personal performance objectives, you may find that he/she moves quickly past “I get it” to “I’m in”.

Another way to influence the C-suite is to influence their influencers.  It is always more useful to have someone else tell people how smart you are than you telling people yourself.

These are bottom-down approaches where you are helping executives influence one another and the company; they differ significantly from more common bottom-up approaches, where employees try, often unsuccessfully, to influence the executive.

Think outside the box

The other method I have found to be of tremendous value is what I call top-up, not to be confused with top-down.  Here is an example of what I mean.  At a multi-national corporation at which I used to toil, a colleague, who was responsible for preparing speeches for the CEO, asked me what frustrated me most about our company and what I would change, if I could?  Together we worked some of my ideas into the CEO’s notes and three days later, as we sat listening to our brilliant CEO deliver a rousing speech, I heard two of my suggestions loud and clear.  Here’s what I learned: wishes become corporate policy the moment they cross the CEO’s lips.

To be an effective change agent you must master many things. Yes, you must understand the fundamentals of sustainability – from metrics to mantra – but you must also be well versed in the art of diplomacy.  Know how to position your ask.  That is often far more important than the ask itself.

Nelson Switzer is President and Chief Sustainability Officer of asherleaf consulting inc., a multi-disciplinary sustainability advisory firm based in Toronto, Canada.  Nelson is a leader in strategic sustainability and innovation.  Nelson is a sought-after speaker on the topic of sustainability and provides pre-eminent advisory services to corporations, governments and not-for-profits around the world.

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