The Not-so-secret Ingredient in the Recipe for Corporate Sustainability Success

cookAs the holidays overpowered my normal work ethic, I found myself relaxing and studying sauces – cookbooks in hand.  While I mostly follow recipes sometimes, like other amateur cooks, I wonder about the secret ingredients that go into the very best dishes. As I pondered what made my grandmother’s gravy better than all others, I realized that I could be asking the same questions about why some corporations’ sustainability strategies are exceptional. What is the secret sauce? As I pored over relevant case studies, interview notes and articles, a key “ingredient”, rare yet not exotic, jumped out. The “must have” ingredient is trust. Leading companies are trustworthy and trusting. Let’s take a closer look.

Can We Be Trusted?

Does the public trust us and our companies?   The good news is that eighty-four percent of the respondents to the  latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey indicated that businesses can pursue self-interest while doing good work for society. The bad news is that the public doesn’t trust business leaders. Only one in five among the general public respondents have faith that business leaders tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions.  Compounding the problem, Edelman reports  “trust in the person leading the company is inextricably linked  to trust in the company itself.” [1]  As you ponder the possibility that the general public may not trust you, ask yourself the following questions.

Story Telling vs. Story Making

Are you more focused on telling your story than ensuring that you have a good story to tell? 

Corporate spin breeds suspicion. If you expend more energy communicating about your good works than on engaging in them, you will not earn trust. At best you can expect the public to be skeptical. At worst, you can experience actively negative reactions. To fix this problem, focus more on “doing” than “telling.”

Making Commitments vs. Keeping Commitments

Do you make commitments that you can’t or don’t  keep because they require too much change?

Anyone can make commitments. The challenge is in honouring them! Once you make a pledge, realize that you must persist for the long haul. If you fail to keep your commitments, you will never become trustworthy. Remember that successful implementation of long-term sustainable strategies often requires transformation and sometimes disruptive change. You must be tenacious yet flexible in how you pursue your goals. Give up the attitude that change applies to everyone but you.

Can We Trust Our Stakeholders?

Do you trust your stakeholders? Your actions show whether you have confidence that your stakeholders are intelligent, reasonable human beings with a point of view that deserves respect.

Choose to be Transparent

Do you provide ready access to information about your company? 

Many believe the adage that “knowledge is power.” Likewise, many company leaders still act as if they can preserve their power by controlling others’ knowledge of their organizations. One of several problems with this logic in today’s Internet and social-media-enabled environment is that leaders cannot exert great control over who has access to what information. Attempted concealment breeds mistrust. Trust your stakeholders and commit to transparency. Share specifics of  where you fall short as well as where you shine. If you trust your stakeholders with both types of information, they will learn to view you as trustworthy.

Explore Differing Points of View

Do you encourage stakeholders to air their varying points of view about what is material to them concerning sustainability-related topics? 

Of course stakeholders’ opinions will vary  on “doing what is right and sustainable.” But regrettably, leaders often avoid or ignore this inevitable friction. The tensions do not dissolve through lack of attention.  Rather they tend to fester into either lack of trust or outright mistrust. These days true leaders encourage the airing of differences. They enable their organizations to hold the tensions in balance. Work on becoming the leader who is a master of “both and” rather than “either or” thinking. Seek out the commonalities and possible points of integration in the varying positions.

The Recipe for Success

As an amateur cook I am well aware that I cannot create a palatable dish if I leave out a key ingredient!  And sometimes the preparation of a critical ingredient requires time, patience and concerted effort on my part before it is fit to be added to the dish. So too, establishing trust takes time and effort. So let’s get cooking!

[1] [1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/200429962/2014-Edelman-Trust-Barometer

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment in the box below.

Kathy MillerDr. 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.

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