15 ways to get your CEO on board with sustainability and corporate responsibility

Convincing senior leadership as to why sustainable business matters remains a major challenge.

Here's a few proven ways, in no particular order, that may help.

1) Get a non-executive/independent director on your side

This is largely for listed firms, but some non-listed companies also use outside views at a senior level. Find one most amenable to the agenda, perhaps a younger one that sees the agenda mattering to their career future. Have them tabling board meeting agenda questions and adding some steel to your CSR committee meetings. Invest some personal time and ask them to mentor you. Flattery works.

2) Lay the breadcrumb trail

Your ideas don't matter. Your CEOs, of course, do. So find smart ways to plant seeds that may take a year or two to take root. Then when your CEO summons you to hear 'their' idea, feign your surprise well, and put your pre-prepared plan into action quickly. Your bonus may go up that year.

3) Map out board roles and tasks, based on personal interest

What does your CFO like to do in his/her spare time? How about your legal director, what pushes his/her buttons personally? This can be connected to the CR agenda specifically or in general. Map out roles and tasks/speeches for the board aligned with their interests. Do it right and it works.

4) Use the family

As creepy as this sounds, it can work. GAP's President Paul Pressler said in 2004 that when he joined the company from Disney his daughter asked, "don't they run sweatshops?" and the path was set for disclosure/transparency leadership by the company. I can't tell you exactly how to do this, but kids count. Perhaps use company 'family days', the power of the spouse, or educational programme involvement to get the family making the case for sustainability.

5) Present your CEO with solid case studies of opportunity

Yes this is blindingly obvious. But too many heads of CR let CEOs find shaky Michael Porter Harvard Business Review articles on their own. Why leave it to chance? Create a quarterly CEO update on ways companies are 'commercialising sustainability', and put it in front of your boss for those long plane journeys where iPhones don't work, yet.

5) Pitch it as a governance issue

I'm always surprised at how few heads of CR do this well. It should be an easy win. Make it clear to your board/bosses that badly managed companies trade at a discount, and that transparency and engagement is clearly linked to better management by investors. Good governance reputation is also vital for that next senior management job. See next point.

7) Link it with where they are going next

Let's say your CEO isn't a lifer. Most are not. It's quite helpful to plant the seed that wherever they work next, this stuff is going to matter there too. There's not an industry or organisation that won't expect some knowledge of the responsibility agenda. Find a way to point that out that steers them away from bitching about the greenwash of another CEO who runs the competition.

8) Pick an issue and offer a leadership opportunity

Note how some CEOs jumped on the UN CEO water mandate some years ago and made the issue their own. What else is coming up the agenda for them to show global leadership on? The Plastics Disclosure Project is a new one gaining traction. Why not use it, or something else, to help your CEO carve his or her own 'niche' to boast about at Davos or the annual industry shindig?

9) Evoke the competitive spirit

Similarly to the point below, the idea of keeping up with peers, and overtaking them, is vital to get a CEO motivated on CR leadership. Competition should be framed in ways they can understand: fewer truck miles per tonne, lower power costs, better consumer and employee engagement are all methods that can work.

10) Use a bucket of cold water

This is a serious point. Shock tactics are risky, but I've seen some work. Bring in a couple of outside voices (not consultants) who can tell a business leaders meeting some tough home truths about your performance vs. the competition. This must be followed quickly by a focus on the opportunity to catch up and overtake. The competition angle is key here, not the negatives.

11) Send them into the supply chain

Back in 2010, I travelled to Ghana to visit cocoa farms with the UK CEO of Kraft, Nick Bunker. He was clearly very affected by what we saw. Kraft/Cadbury's then £50 million investment in cocoa sustainability is now worth $400 million via Mondelez, the new iteration of both brands. There's nothing like meeting a smallholder farmer on two dollars a day to persuade a CEO of the moral and logical case for sustainability and 'resource resilience'.

12) Put them in front of some critical stakeholders

This is not easy, but essential. CEOs must understand how others see them. Middle age male (mostly) delusion is a very powerful problem. I'd suggest start small. One on one meetings with a conservation NGO could be followed up with something more substantive, such as a non-tame stakeholder meeting where the CEO must stay quiet(ish).

13) Show them just how the really poor and unfortunate live

This is where struggling Business in the Community in the UK always did their best work. It's a simple idea. Take your board or some of them, and show them a crack den. Have someone tell them how these come to exist. If that's too 1980's for you, what about simply showing the poverty that exists so close to top financial centers all over the world? This is your moral pitch. Get it right, and it can work. Just because it's old school doesn't mean it can't be effective.

14) Demonstrate just how motivating responsible business is for employees

This is an obvious point. But how well have you really done this? Relying on the employee annual or quarterly survey is not enough. Use proper studies, books from credible sources and tell stories from inside your business. Create annual individual sustainability innovation awards and make the board judge them, with some outside help.

15) Take out the buzzwords and irritating jargon

CEOs hate to feel left behind. That may invoke a reaction of retreat into what they do know. That goes for both management and morality. Take out the three letter acronyms and talk the language of simple business improvements, I've seen that work many times.
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