Engaging the whole organization around sustainability: It needs bringing CR and Change practitioners together!

About time for another blogpost – this one will be about CSR/Sustainability and change, and how practitioners from both sides need to work together. The urgency to write about this arose from attending the sustainability-focused Ashridge conference ‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ (http://tinyurl.com/2948fqy) last week.

Attending the conference and engaging in many conversations with fellow practitioners made me realize what my own advocacy is really about: engaging the whole organization around sustainability. I believe that CSR/Sustainability can only work, move out of a marginal position and achieve scale, if it is looked at  – and implemented as – a long-term change initiative for the whole organization.

But here’s the current reality:

While the few exceptional organizations have managed engagement well, CSR/Sustainability managers/directors in the majority of organizations are faced with the task of engaging the whole organization around sustainability – and don’t have a clue how to do that creatively, professionally and effectively. How do they go about it, other than, simply speaking, holding a ppt presentation for the board and pushing information mails on information-overloaded employees? They are also supposed to effectively dialogue and engage with external stakeholder groups – and so many I have met are scared of that, as they simply don’t know how to effectively engage in difficult conversations that might center around conflict.

Change/OD consultants, whether in-house or external, could be really helpful in all of these contexts, and many of them care personally about the topic of sustainability. However, there still seems to be deep fragmentation between these circles – a fragmentation that urgently needs to be bridged, in my opinion.

Interestingly, one company that really stood out with a different approach here already in the middle of the Noughties was O2 in Germany: They had the change consultants right there as members of their CR Steering Group. Great!

Change/OD consultants already work inside organizations on issues around culture and values, inclusive strategy development, and various change initiatives. They tend to be excellent and sensitive facilitators, also capable of providing a safe environment for difficult stakeholder conversations. Strangely enough, the fewest of them seem to have looked at sustainability as a long-term change initiative for the whole organization. At the conference last week, I noticed that many of them, in their own understanding of sustainability, seem to be in the ‘late majority’ segment for that topic …

At the conference, a company-internal OD consultant said: “I really want to get involved with the sustainability topic. I think I want to put it on the agenda of a workshop with top leaders in the company I’ll be running soon.”

I asked: “What about the CSR/Sustainability people in your company? Do you know each other? Have you ever talked with them?” Her answer was that a) she did not know them/had never met them and b) she did not want to involve them in designing that topic for her workshop. I was left puzzled …

On the other hand, I would assume that most CSR/Sustainability managers don’t know what good change/OD consultants can help them with: Effective engagement of both the board and of employees internally, and of other stakeholder groups externally, through e.g. interviews and facilitated online ‘jams’, workshops and focus groups, thinking and inquiring together, Future Search or Appreciative Inquiry initiatives, inclusive strategy and innovation work, and so on. The CSR/Sustainability people could get into highly effective engagement initiatives together with in-house or external people who really know their way around such engagement, and who bring the required training, experience, pedagogy, methodologies and ‘tools’.

Effectively engaging the board, middle management and employees in general creates buy-in from everybody in the organisation, creates opportunities for sustainability becoming part of organizational culture and values, for employees taking ownership for sustainability in their respective functions, and for employees contributing lots of innovation potential around sustainability. Effectively engaging external stakeholders creates improved understanding, might resolve conflicts, and can also contribute a lot of innovation potential.

CSR/Sustainability managers, when shown what change/OD consultants can do in working together with them, tend to lean back, visibly relax, and breathe a huge sigh of relief, saying “why did you not tell me earlier? where have you been all this time? when can we start working together?”

On the other hand, change/OD consultants who also care about sustainability (be it ecological sustainability, sustainable employee relations or sustainable leadership) can find here a really meaningful and fulfilling field of own engagement.

What’s missing, I find, are large-scale opportunities – e.g. workshops, conferences – to bring the two circles together: for getting to know each other, for generating improved mutual understanding, and for mutual exploration of opportunities.

Why am I passionate about this topic? As said at the beginning, if we want to achieve much-needed scale and effective implementation of organization sustainability, in my understanding it is the only way forward. Ongoing fragmentation will not get us there.

When I brought this up at the conference, the lead facilitator asked back: “Would you be willing to take this project on?” Well yes, I would. I’ve decided to really look into this and try to make it happen for next year. Collaborators most welcome!


Published by scheubel

Organisational Change Consultant, Coach and Trainer - focus on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability

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  1. hello Veronica, I agree that this is a significant opportunity. CSR and HR players in most companies dont come together in a collaborative way to bring out the great potential synergies of both functions working together. This is why I wrote “CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices”. (Greenleaf, 2010). CSR is a long term culture change process and the guardians of culture are in the HR department – or at least, they should be. How on earth a CSR leader can hope to drive change without this important functional expertise is a mystery to me. Good luck with your project. Happy to help if i can. Warm regards, elaine

  2. My skeptical view, based on anecdotal evidence, has been that most corporations still believe the false “make money or be sustainable” dichotomy and “choose” the former. The fact they see sustainability as a “topic” seems to reinforce this. What are you finding?

  3. Yes, and I’d say what we as sustainability practitioners are working on is: making ourselves obsolete in the long run. The idea is that sustainability, in the future, will be part of any company’s culture, values, ‘DNA’, corporate strategy, and way of doing business – in any part of the company. A few companies are at least on the way. I look to e.g. IBM and Interface.

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