What does business leadership mean when it comes to sustainability?

Harvard Business Review published an article in March 2023 on the 8 Responsibilities of Chief Sustainability Officers, which highlights the broad set of leadership elements required to deliver an effective ESG programme. The authors comment that “we’ve come across a lot of organizations that are too focused on the regulatory and legal elements or external communications but overlook cultural elements or capability building”. Employee engagement is one such lever that can be pulled to rebalance the approach.

At Ailuna we believe that creating the right company culture is the foundation for success when it comes to bringing business ESG plans to life. And you can only do that if you engage with your employees and take them on their own sustainability journey. That’s why we created a behavioural change app to help users integrate new habits step-by-step into their daily work and home routines.

So how do our enterprise clients and business prospects create that link from corporate ESG ambition to employee engagement around sustainable habit building?  The answer is simple – it’s all about leadership. 

So are you one of the sustainability value creators?

Leadership attributes to look for

The text book definition of sustainable leadership is “a style of management that drives solutions for environmental, social and economic challenges in the world. One that recognises leadership as a process of influence and breaks down silos to combine efforts towards change and transformation.”

If you drill down into the various organisational components then it’s likely to include some or all of the following:

  • being proactive in formulating company sustainability plans
  • creating staff working groups to improve ESG performance
  • engaging staff by including employees in the sustainability conversation 
  • spelling out the financial benefits of sustainability at a project and business level
  • engaging customers and business partners in sustainability agendas

But none of these will happen without first having a sustainability leader.

He identifies champions within the company to challenge existing operating models that hold traditional companies back. Their leadership style will likely involve a cross-functional approach, embedding sustainability – through local champions – within divisions and business units while linking incentives to sustainability targets.

If that describes you then congratulations, you have the gift within your organisation to make sustainable related change happen. But if it’s not you, then read on as we share the four key steps that could apply as part of your own personal leadership development.

1. Know where to start

At a time of economic and social challenges – related to high inflation, shortage of skilled resources, and the uncertainty from the war in Ukraine – getting airtime for the ESG agenda can be difficult.  So to win the hearts and minds of the senior executive team, you need to identify a business problem that sustainability leadership can solve. Ideally, one that can help your business to outpace competitors in growth; gain new relevance in consumers’ eyes; and reignite employee engagement.

2. Create a working group to tackle that problem

Once you have anchored on the problem to solve, it’s compelling to get busy with creating a plan for action. That’s what you’re paid to do right?

At one level this planning approach could be valid, but only if you are confident that you already have the right culture in place across your organisation where others will get behind your sustainability ideas and help drive them forward. 

An alternative next step would be to create a working group

Stakeholders and potential champions across the organisation: task them with coming up with the plan. What you are doing is inviting their input – whilst guiding their thinking – so that you co-create initiatives together. That level of buy-in across the team will also be key to creating some momentum once you start to put this joint plan into action.

What you are looking for the working group to do is translate the business problem into a number of key themes related to the ESG agenda. This provides a clear organisational focus as campaigns for taking action. These themes are also helpful to frame the future internal communications with employees around the steps they can take to become more sustainable.

“At Ailuna we believe that creating the right company culture is the foundation for success when it comes to bringing business ESG plans to life.”

3. Choose the right tools

Developing a sustainability-focused culture will take more than just having a working group – however talented and motivated they are – you also need to give them the right tools to cascade the change agenda across different cohorts of employees. And it’s important to remember that, regardless of job role, individual employees will be at different stages in their awareness and application of sustainable habits. At Ailuna we describe these as behavioural segments based on shades of green.  From an employee engagement perspective, it’s all about moving people from one cohort to the next – from light green to mid-green for example.

And that’s where we can help. 

Every Ailuna for Business implementation includes a level of customisation to configure the actions that employees will take so that they directly address the themes that you have identified. And the cultural identity is reinforced through branding so that your employees really feel a part of the ESG change programme. It’s created by the working group for the employees and they see it through Ailuna every time they interact with the app.

Furthermore, we are developing a piece of “quest” onboarding functionality, in-app, that solicits ideas from users on things they would like to do that have value for them. This means that employees have a greater say in what their businesses are going to embark on together.

This means that our tools can reinforce your culture where the greater the proportion of employees who engage with the Ailuna app, the more actions are completed. The change outcome is a higher probability that new habits will be formed.

4. Measure and adapt

One of the benefits of having a strong culture around sustainability is the ability of that internal ecosystem to learn by doing and adapt based on feedback and results. One theme-based campaign that works well in one part of the business may need to be tweaked to generate the same level of results in another, remembering that team composition across sites may be different.

Every business sustainability theme should have a series of successful outcomes that represent the combined impact of employees completing actions.

This creates a link between the small steps that individuals take and the overall collective impact. Not only is this good for moving the dial when it comes to your road to net zero, but it is also highly motivating for the community of users taking action – they all are playing their part. Step by step, your sustainability culture is being reinforced.

Data and reporting is also a key component of delivering change against your campaign themes

The Ailuna for Business app brings these themes to life through leaderboards. This provides an aggregated team view that shows those employees who have engaged the most. A calendar view feature allows a user to work out how many days are left before the campaign runs out, providing a stimulus cue for them to engage.

Leaderboard positions are visible throughout the campaign – creating peer pressure to do more – so that there is competition not only between individuals but also across departmental teams. At the completion of the campaign, there are gold, silver, and bronze medal winners, with announcements being made within the community space within the app to provide recognition of their success. 

Whilst not everyone can be a winner, behavioural science tells us that no one employee will want to be left behind.

The outcome

Research shows that companies with highly engaged workforces are more profitable and more productive. Where the culture of that engagement is focused on sustainability, then the planet can benefit as well.

So having the right culture means creating a leadership style that:

  • makes sustainability a strategic priority with specific aspirations and targets
  • trains and supports employees on how to integrate sustainability into their work
  • uses sustainability topics to make a tangible, positive impact on business-related problems

What are you waiting for?

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Ailuna Business Matters is a business-focused newsletter, the purpose of which is to provide our B2B community with thought leadership on employee engagement in the workplace on sustainability. We do this by providing new ways to encourage staff to live more sustainably both in and outside the workplace.

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