By Tyler Wagner
The team at thinkPARALLAX has done a lot of thinking, and writing, over the years about the broad topic of corporate sustainability and citizenship reporting. (See previous posts by Ann Tartre and Jeff Sutton.) But for this post, I’m going to narrow the focus to what I believe are the two most important pages of your report: the CEO Letter.
Why the CEO letter?
Simply put: It’s concise, it comes from the top, and (if properly constructed) it provides readers with critical insight into your citizenship approach — all in the span of one or two, hopefully not three, pages.
It’s like the CliffsNotes version of your company’s citizenship story. Which is great for people like me, who are happy to download and skim a report, but who don’t have the time, interest, or caffeine tolerance required to read a report from cover to cover.
Aside from the brevity, what I find interesting, and the reason that I skip straight to the CEO letter anytime I’m reviewing a report, is that it gives me answers to three burning questions:
- How is citizenship defined?
- What is the purpose of citizenship?
- What is the role of leadership in relation to citizenship?
Let’s unpack each of these topics a bit further.
A good CEO letter should give me a clear picture of your concept of sustainability.
What I’m talking about here are definitions and scope. As in: How does your organization define key terms? And how broad (or narrow) is your view of citizenship?
This is an area where the lexicon of sustainability reporting can be confusing – the same words can mean different things to different people.
Take the word “sustainability” for example. While Company A may use the term to refer narrowly to environmental impact; Company B uses it to refer to environmental and social impact; and Company C may take a more literal approach, using “sustainability” to refer to the long-term viability of their business.
Whether you produce a “citizenship report,” “sustainability report” or “corporate responsibility report,” don’t allow semantics to be a stumbling block for your readers.
That doesn’t mean the CEO letter should read like a dictionary entry, but a good letter should remove any ambiguity as far as how you’re using key terms, and the scope of activity that you view as integral to your citizenship efforts.
Sustainability is a journey, and as companies progress through various stages of citizenship development, it’s natural to expect their strategy to evolve over time.
A good CEO letter should make it clear what the purpose of a company’s citizenship efforts are, and what he or she hopes to achieve. Are you focused on minimizing footprint and improving efficiency? Or are you leveraging sustainability as an opportunity for growth and innovation?
The best CEO letters show clear alignment between a company’s sustainability strategy and the overarching business strategy. If a company produces a separate annual financial report that also includes a CEO letter, I should be able to identify common themes in both letters.
And, it bears repeating here: The “three P’s” of people, planet, and performance are not a strategy. They may be suitable as broad focus-areas, and of course, reporting frameworks like GRI will divide content into these sections, but the “three P’s” say nothing about your plan of action or strategic aims.
Role of leadership
Whose job is sustainability? While most CEO letters won’t answer this question directly, a fair amount can be inferred from the way a CEO frames his or her work in relation to the company’s citizenship activity.
For example, if the CEO letter in the annual sustainability report is the only time the CEO is actually “talking” about sustainability, the chances are good that they’re paying lip-service to the topic as opposed to truly leading or championing the cause.
Conversely, if the letter emphasizes the ways in which sustainability can help realize the CEO’s ambitious vision for the company’s future, chances are good that leadership is more on top of things, and that sustainability is more deeply embedded in the business.
Having read more than a few CEO letters, I can say that while some are more enjoyable reading than others, most tend to follow a familiar formula. Usually, it goes something like this:
“20___ was a great year, with both successes and challenges….we’ve got a lot to be proud of but there’s more to accomplish….yadda yadda yadda.”
But a good CEO letter does more than summarize the previous year’s successes and challenges; it sheds some light on these three key questions:
- How do we define citizenship?
- What is our strategy?
- What role do I (or does leadership) play in achieving our strategic aims?
A CEO letter is often the only section of a report that I will read in its entirety; so for me, and readers like me, failing to address these topics would be a big missed opportunity.
What do you think? Do you skip straight to the CEO letter? A different section of the report entirely? What makes for a good CEO letter?
Tyler Wagner is Director of Client Strategy at thinkPARALLAX.