Aha! All of a sudden – or at least seemingly so – you’ve been hit by a lightning bolt and have decreed that your company must address sustainability now! You furiously draft a vision statement and ask your communications department to release it to the organization as well as to the press. Will this get the job done?
My response to this is:
- What job?
- What are your goals?
- Where is your strategy?
- Are you and the organizational culture ready to execute the changes that this vision implies?
A vision, even when accompanied by a strong commitment to make your company more sustainable, is not enough to move your company toward its fulfillment. The critical question is this: Will the decisions and behaviours that follow consistently reflect the vision? If you fail to take the steps that will transform the vision into real, executable strategy, your employees and other stakeholders are likely remain unconvinced of the significance of your commitment. And corporate spin, when discovered or merely perceived, can do great damage to your efforts as well as to your reputation.
Over the first few months of this blog, we have discussed the lack of coherence between individuals’ attitudes and behaviours. We examined some of the factors that might impact our perceptions of coherence – or apparent lack of it. We debated whether individuals are capable of consistency and ways that they might address their inconsistencies. With this blog, we are taking the discussion from the individual to the organizational level. Corporations are composed of individuals, after all. Thus the arguments and explanations that we have made in our previous blogs certainly apply to corporations and other organizations as well. This month we are taking on some unique organizational challenges in ensuring coherence.
I remember my shock the first time we worked with a client company and discovered that the picture presented to the public differed dramatically from reality. We were so excited about the opportunity of collaborating with this company. As we got a closer look at how they actually functioned, we became aware of a major disconnect between what they said that they stood for and their leaders’ actual behaviours. Undoubtedly as a result of these inconsistencies, their employees were cynical and distrustful. Corporate spin can do great damage!
Even in the absence of intentional corporate spin, a company’s functioning can still seem inconsistent to some of their stakeholders. We work with a company whose leaders have clearly committed to sustainability – or so it seems to us. However, an assessment of the company’s sustainability culture based on our SCALA instrument, revealed a fairly widespread lack of understanding and low levels of engagement within several pockets of the organization. Note the employee statements:
“We have a corporate sustainability goal. But day-to-day activities don’t necessarily support that goal. Financial performance trumps everything.”
“Senior management may talk sustainability but the people actually doing the work do not.”
“ I think everyone agrees philosophically – actions may not reflect philosophy and the definitions of sustainability aren’t clear.”
Evidently, this company’s leaders still have work to do to engage the entire organization in their efforts, in spite of their good intentions and the progress that they have made.
So what does it take to ensure that your vision is more than just empty words? Our research findings suggest that true sustainability leaders have:
- A clear vision for sustainability that they communicate consistently to all stakeholders.
- A strong business case that legitimizes their strategies.
- A clear plan that they execute for engaging employees and key constituents.
- A defined approach for integrating sustainability into decision-making/operations.
- Checks and balances to measure and ensure progress.
Epiphanies and visions are certainly impactful on those who experience them. However the visions must be cultivated through change leadership and business implementation processes to show real measurable change.
Don’t risk your reputation by making value claims that you and your company aren’t ready to fully embrace. And while we hope that a sustainability-lightning-bolt hits you, we’d advise not marketing your vision until you are building it into your company’s DNA.
 We have been working with Bob Eccles and George Serafeim of the Harvard Business School for the past few years to study the cultural differentiators of companies leading in sustainability work. Based on the research, we have developed the Culture and Leadership Assessment (SCALA)
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.