Why should sustainability change agents care about executive sponsorship? Because as sustainable business matures, those of us working in sustainability will find that after eco-efficiency, the next great step will come by leveraging sustainability on a strategic level to truly transform our businesses. Just like the Internet before it, sustainability will grow beyond its roots to become much broader, mission-driven, and transformative. And at that point, sustainability change agents won’t just be dealing with light bulbs or solar panels, but driving true strategic change. In numerous benchmarking studies on the critical success factors to implementing successful strategic change, active and visible executive sponsorship heads the list.
With sustainability, the need for strong executive sponsorship is enormous. In any large organization, some people at every level of the organization will be unconvinced that sustainability is affordable, or view such efforts as simply “greenwashing.” A well-placed, articulate and influential sponsor has the unique ability to both motivate and compel these people to support your efforts, especially as you transition from the operational to strategic realm. The executive sponsor leading the effort needs to be a passionate advocate, believing that sustainability is an imperative – an imperative based on a powerful business case. The sooner you can find a strong executive sponsor, the better positioned you will be for taking sustainability to a strategic level.
To be effective, the sponsor must be a true key stakeholder, with the power and influence to impact success. The sponsor must be in a position to authorize resources and provide the guidelines to shape decision-making at all levels, empowering people and rewarding achievements. If the organization’s executive stakeholders don’t visibly promote and support the sustainability effort, it is highly unlikely that those beneath them will do so in the long run, resulting in a failure to truly transform the business.
*** What Does an Effective Sponsor Do? ***
It can be hard to identify an effective sponsor; you may even have to teach your sponsor how to be effective. Keep these critical requirements in mind for effective sponsorship:
An Effective Sponsor…
Creates Strategic Alignment: Sets the vision and strategy for sustainability in alignment with business strategy and goals.
Builds a Coalition of Sponsorship: Mobilizes and aligns other key business leaders and stakeholders, so they can successfully propagate sustainability initiatives through the organization.
Allocates Resources: Gets the necessary resources (people, time, money, etc.) in place to initiate and sustain the change.
Communicates: Sends a compelling message directly to employees about the importance of sustainability, laying out the financial business case along with the social and environmental imperatives – and the risks or costs if no change is made. Keeps in close contact with the initiative’s project manager and teams.
Demonstrates Commitment: Models and shapes others’ behaviors. Provides motivation for employees, and important stakeholders to ensure the sustainability initiative moves forward. Holds other leaders accountable. Ensures that the initiative remains a priority.
Establishes Durability: Makes sure that the people, culture, processes and systems are in place to maintain sustainability for the long term.
Sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? But not everyone takes naturally to the role, particularly in communicating with employees. Some may be invisible or inactive, not fully understanding what’s required of a sponsor, or wavering in their commitment. Others may believe that their involvement is unnecessary, or feel uncomfortable performing sponsorship activities, and would rather delegate them.
While it may be tempting to try to work around shortcomings, we encourage you to first try to work with your sponsor to improve. Because of the leverage an effective sponsor can bring, investing in their abilities can enable much greater success than if you try to pick up the slack on your own.
*** Strengthening Sponsorship ***
The challenge for many Sustainability Directors or Green Teams is knowing what to do if their designated sponsor fails to meet one of these critical requirements. Reviewing roles and expectations with your sponsor is the first step in strengthening their sponsorship. APQC’s excellent report on how “best practice” organizations handle change illustrates the importance of educating leaders on their role. Although written some time ago, these finding still hold true today. Be explicit with your sponsor, and let them know what you need.
For those who are uncertain in their commitment to sustainability, first seek to understand their underlying concerns, issues, and needs. Educate them on the business need for change and the anticipated benefits, as well the dangers of the BAU – Business As Usual. Here are some questions to consider when talking with your sponsor:
* How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
* What pressures is your sponsor under?
* How can your team ease their anxiety/concerns?
* What is in it for them?
When there’s discomfort with the role, it’s important to build the executive’s awareness of the need for sponsorship, and to strengthen their desire to perform this role. Use other influential executives to help with this awareness building process. Many sponsors can benefit from coaching on how to effectively communicate about the sustainability initiative. Offer to craft the message for them, and then help with its delivery. Above all, avoid delegating sponsorship to someone who does not have the necessary power or the passion. An ineffective sponsor may very well be worse for sustainability at your organization than no sponsor at all.
What challenges are you facing in securing effective sponsorship for your sustainability efforts? If you’re a committed sponsor, what advice would you offer to others new to the role? Share with us the lessons you’ve learned about what it takes to be an effective sponsor.
FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.
Anna Ewins is a FairRidge Affiliate, and founding partner of Ewins & Winby. They deliver comprehensive organizational readiness and commitment building solutions to clients who are implementing business transformation requiring strategic change. Anna’s clients have included Chevron, Blue Shield, HP, Sun and Stanford University. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (Organizational) from Saybrook Institute, and a B.Sc. in Life Sciences from Aberdeen University.