A bonsai tree representing sustainable business grows from a white pot.
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This article is an excerpt from Leading Sustainably: The Path to Sustainable Business and How the SDGs Changed Everything, by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a rallying cry inspiring organizations, particularly large ones, to act. Businesses have taken many positive steps toward aligning with these 17 goals, not only in their operational activities but also in their corporate social responsibility and philanthropic endeavors.

Alignment, however, isn’t action. So how can businesses that already have such an alignment—or even just an initial interest—drive execution?

1.   Engage leadership first and get buy-in

Ambitious organizational transformation efforts always require strong, committed senior leadership to drive success, and transitioning to sustainability is no different. If your senior leaders are not yet fully engaged, look for opportunities to increase their involvement at the industry level, which will offer them a higher-level view into how their peers, partners, and competitors are evolving on sustainability.

2.   Make clear strategic choices

Companies that move to sustainable business models will need to be prepared to make tough choices. The understanding of sustainability is generally confined to domain experts within most organizations, so it is crucial to make clear, decisive choices to clarify the direction to staff, customers, and other stakeholders.

3.   Take a systematic approach to building capability

Most companies do not have an organization-wide understanding of sustainability and how it applies to their business. As with other organizational change initiatives, this capability must be built using a systematic approach. Allocate sufficient time to determine which stakeholders should be involved before you look to roll out your plan, the business processes that needed to be adjusted, which KPIs are needed, which specific activities need to be started or sunsetted, and what training is needed. And, vitally, make sure you designate champions within your organization to ensure the vision and key messages are fully cascaded and understood across the organization.

4.   Build an “A team”

Running organizations with sustainability at the core will require skills that most business managers and their direct reports do not possess today. Yojnger generations, though, and talent from different types of institutions, networks, and educational experiences are entering the workforce better prepared and with a skillset more adapted to sustainable business models.

When you search within your organization to identify who can lead this transition, look to those who have an interest in sustainability and are willing to skill-up to lead your business though the transition. Often, they will self-select for the task, and a merit-based talent management approach—rather than an “it’s your time” one—is optimal in positioning yourself for success. And ensure that your organization adequately invests in the staff you already have.

5.   Pursue a multi-stakeholder approach

Companies are part of a much larger systems, with connections to and responsibilities for numerous stakeholders. Not only is understanding your organization’s perspective on materiality vital, but also knowing who your stakeholders are and what is important to them. When you understand your stakeholders’ perspectives, you can hone in on areas where your values align or identify engagement strategies to bring around your closest stakeholders to support your vision. Finding areas of mutual benefit and identifying opportunities for collaboration will help drive the success of whatever strategy you opt to pursue.

6.   Stay flexible when rolling a global strategy out locally

Aligning an organization around an ambitious vision or the execution of key initiatives across all regions is challenging when dealing with varying cultures, experiences, market dynamics, and perspectives. As with other aspects of business such as brand-portfolio strategy, finance, or operations, sustainability-driven strategies need to be adapted to local environments and situations in order to work. Leaders can increase engagement from colleagues in locations far from headquarters by leveraging the SDGs, which offer a universal and understandable framing of sustainability challenges.

7.   Act—Assess—Adjust

If you’re looking to start or expand your efforts, dedicate time to understanding the best practices in your industry and beyond; learn about the tools and techniques to make the process more robust and make connections with stakeholders who can serve as potential partners. But don’t let analysis and outreach become an impediment to action. You must master the Act—Assess—Adjust cycle: Identify some actions you believe will drive impact, put in place tools and frameworks that you will use to comprehensively assess the effectiveness of your actions, and adjust your strategy as needed. Your success in moving to a sustainability model will depend greatly on your ability to master this cycle.

8.   Educating customers is part of the job

Although consumers; and customers; knowledge of sustainability issues has increased significantly, they still are conflicted about how to incorporate this awareness in their product-decision processes and may not yet fully grasp how their actions, even seemingly small ones, can have a major impact on the environment and society. Educating your customers, and consumers in a B2C context, on the increased value you deliver through more sustainable products and services should be a core activity.

9.   Leverage SDGs to drive alignment

The SDGs are universal goals, presented in a colorful way with relatable terms and concepts. However, there are a total of 17! Use the readymade framework of the SDGs by first isolating several of the goals that are most material to your business, put them at the core of your plan, and communicate about your progress frequently and clearly to your organization and external stakeholders.

Ensure the communication is two-way, offering your colleagues, employees, and other stakeholders the opportunity to contribute ideas and offer feedback. Regularly asses whether these messages are resonating and revise them as needed to enable understanding and action. As you look to extend your engagement to other SDGs, expand your communication efforts accordingly.

10. Consider looking externally to accelerate your transition

High-quality, sustainable products and services have proliferated in the market due to the increased interest from consumers in sustainability. Consider partnering with the companies that produce them or even bring them into the fold, rather than looking at the new competition as a risk. They can provide promising new revenue streams, as well valuable know-how about running a sustainability-led operation that can be extended to products, services, and key functions within your existing business. If you do decide to go down this route, though, be sure to put a clear, well-structured process in place to guarantee a win-win operational model that benefits both companies.

Research shows that investment into impact ventures accounts for one of every three dollars of US assets, and, overall, receives more loyal consumer support than traditional ventures.


Cover of "Leading Sustainably," by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank
Cover Copyright 2020. Used with permission.

For more remarkable insights on sustainable business and engaging in world-changing leadership, read Leading Sustainably by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank.