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The Hidden Business Case for Sustainability:  
What Every CEO and Board Member Needs to Know

By Sabrina El-Chibini

A transformative approach to sustainability levels the playing field in a corporation, resulting in high employee engagement scores relative to involvement (1).  It harnesses innovation and empowerment at the grassroots, where billions of interactions occur between employees, customers, and community members each day. It isn’t about what I give you and what you give me but about how we engage with stakeholders (investors, clients, employees, consumers, government, board members, business partners) to drive performance all around.  Very simply, it works!

 

Our research is proving that, when engagement is nurtured through this specific approach to sustainability, or what we call Transformative Sustainability Involvement (TSI), employees describe the feeling that is gives them as UNITING.  Here are the words they use.  These form the basis of the hidden business case for sustainability:

Companies multiply personal, professional, and business development opportunities exponentially.  Even better – this is done around a uniting goal of benefiting society and broadening innovation through “out-of-the-office” thinking.  People are left feeling great. 

As transactional approaches to engagement leave us baffled and worn down, it’s time for this change.  Only 33% of U.S. employees are engaged at work (2). That figure has remained steadily uninspiring over the last decade (±3%) (2), despite the $720M that are committed to engagement initiatives each year and that are expected to grow to $1.5B (3).   Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. a staggering $483B to $605B each year in lost productivity (2).  It’s no wonder that the #1 concern for U.S. CEOs is the ability to retain and attract top talent (4). 

 

Several factors point to sustainability as being an ideal vehicle for improving employee engagement.  Employees are looking for purpose beyond financial rewards and for companies with strong sustainability programs (5).  They want to play an active role in sustainability, beyond traditional donation and volunteerism opportunities, and to share engaging community experiences with the outside world (5).  Our own research proved that most employees who chose to opt-in to TSI also happened to be the ones who have regular interactions with external clients (1).  In the words of one employee, “it’s like spreading enlightenment”. 

Consulting

Stakeholder Engagement

partnership facilitation

In TSI, employees are included in decision-making regarding sustainability and given opportunities to lead and unite their peers.  They build and act on innovative ideas and are recognized for their achievements.  Employees participate in long-term problem-solving.

 

But don’t be put off by the long-term.  For business and society, there is as much to be gained in the process as in the ultimate measure of success.  

 

In 18 short months, a sizeable number of employees took accountability for moving one multi-national’s TSI program forward, supporting the securing of 9 non-profit partnerships in 8 countries, each responding to unique local needs in an innovative way while adhering to commonly determined, focussed objectives and guidelines.   The business impact, interwoven with the social/environmental impacts of the initiative, includes the development of leadership skills for both employees and community members, effective teamwork, and high engagement in relation to employee participation in the program (1). 

 

Here is a glimpse of what participating employees had to say about their involvement in this initiative, mapped against a close parameter we could find in the literature:

A transformative approach to sustainability means embracing change, delighting internal and external stakeholders with non-traditional approaches to engagement and being accountable for fact-based, meaningful progress.  “I’m all for change as long as it doesn’t affect me” simply isn’t cutting it anymore. 

It Takes Bold Leadership to Get Us There

 

When GlobeScan and BSR asked sustainability professionals to describe how they would define bold leadership in sustainability, they responded with hundreds of different perspectives, which were summarized into five key characteristics: ambitious, collaborative, transparent, integrated, transformative (7). 

 

To that we add ”long-term-minded” and “people-centric”.  Harvard Business Review (HBR) tells us that, ‘on average, the world’s 100 best CEOs (who have resisted the lure of the short-term) have been on the job for 17 years—and have generated a 2,091% overall return on their stock (adjusted for exchange-rate effects), or a 20.2% annual return’ (8).  Visionary leaders are resisting the status quo to drive the most sustained and best performance.  This is compatible with today’s complex environment where employees and consumers alike are demanding REAL change. 

 

Here are many of the words that the world’s top 3 performers used in a roundtable discussion with HBR, that underline the importance of the people aspect for success (9): 

 

impact measuring and reporting 

It’s not just the business case but the lure of legacy. TSI supports visionaries and their corporations in moving beyond “leading today” towards “being remembered”, setting the stage for success for generations to come. 

 

With the people lies the hidden business case for sustainability

 

According to HBR, “big projects fail at an astonishing rate and by some estimates, well over half the time, taking not just a financial toll, but demoralizing employees who have labored diligently to complete their share of the work (10).”  While the reasons for failure are complex, our experience is demonstrating that a transformative approach to stakeholder engagement for sustainability, often equating with the nurturing of relationships and of diverse and complex projects, is driving unusual success with relatively fewer resources.  This has us wondering whether business isn’t leaving money on the table, every day, every minute.  Why not divest from some current strategies and replace these by proven new ones?

 

Our tested and vetted approach is about “how to get there” and “how to prove it”.  We measure and report on the business, social, and environmental impact of client TSIs using our Transformation Tracker™.  Data from the Transformation Tracker™ allows for differentiated communications that further engage stakeholders and entrench “Great Corporate Citizen” reputations. The tool reports on the transformation that occurs over time and accompanies a methodical people-centered approach (1).

 

Let’s talk about it!

 

Our team at The Collaboration Vector Inc.  would like to help you get there.  We can implement seamlessly with you or provide your great teams with the approach and the tools you need to adopt a transformative approach to sustainability.  Write to me (sabrina@thecollaborationvector.com) or call me at 514-730-8433.

The Collaboration Vector Inc. (TCV) is a next generation consultancy firm specialized in transformative sustainability involvement strategies, transformative employee involvement programs, proactive stakeholder mapping and engagement, transformative partnership designs, partnership facilitation, and impact measurement, reporting and communications. TCV has a team of strategists, business professionals, and researchers in health and wellness, economic growth, education, poverty reduction, entrepreneurship, leadership and climate action. The company works with clients in the private, non-profit, and public sectors. 

©The Collaboration Vector Inc. 2017.  All Rights Reserved.

 

  1. The Collaboration Vector Inc. Research, 2016 – 2017.

  2. ‘State of the American Workplace’, Gallup, 2016.

  3. https://hbr.org/2015/01/employee-engagement-depends-on-what-happens-outside-of-the-office

  4. Fortune.  Commentary.  What CEOs Fear Most Right Now.  Alan Murray.  January 31, 2017.  Based on Conference Board results of survey of 555 CEOs worldwide. 

  5. Based on Employee Engagement Study. CONE Communications. 1,020 adults surveyed, employed at companies with 1,000 employees.  Error margin ± 3% at a 95% level of confidence.

  6. 2017 Hiring Outlook.  Strategies for Engaging with Today’s Talent and Improving the Candidate Experience.  A guide for employers by The Execu Search Group.

  7. Globescan & BSR.  The State of Sustainable Business 2016.  Results of the 8th Annual Survey of Sustainable Business Leaders. October 2016.

  8. Harvard Business Review.  Leadership. The Best Performing CEOs in the World. By Harvard Business Review Staff. From the November 2016 Issue. 

  9. Harvard Business Review.  Leadership. The Best Performing CEOs in the World. By Harvard Business Review Staff. From the November 2016 Issue.  Rountable.

  10. Harvard Business Review.  Leading Teams.  Why Good Projects Fail Anyway.  Nadim F. Matta & Ronald N. Ashkenas.  From the September 2003 issue.