We all want toolkits to help us do better. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Yet, blindly copying others often does not translate into successful implementation.
In my opinion, it is much better to join a community of practitioners with and from whom you can learn, and in this manner inform your own practices in a context-aware manner. This is why I joined the South African Leadership Council of the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), which started in Canada.
The NBS model brings together business sustainability practitioners across different sectors in a given territory. Its members work together to identify common challenges, and in this way they ‘brief’ the research world on what questions, if researched systematically and practically, would help them move business sustainability forward. You can read more about NBS here and about the specific South African challenges reported by NBS here .
One particular question grabbed my attention in the 2014 NBS challenges report: Why do some South African CEOs make the shift to incorporate sustainability into their core strategies, and what holds others back?
The question motivated me to join the research team led by Dr Stephanie Bertels, who is based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. We looked at over 120 academic articles and books addressing the topics of CEO decision making, CEO leadership styles, and CEO influence strategies, as well as the practical experiences and insights from interviews with 84 CEOs, chairpersons and board members, executive team members and internal and external change agents from a range of global and many leading South African companies on integrating sustainability into strategy.
The research findings will be published in May 2016 together with a complementary set of practical tools to help sustainability change agents to apply these findings in their own companies and to help catalyse better decision making around sustainability. We identified five aspects that explain how and why this shift takes place, namely:
- Understanding CEO decision making itself, including the unique perspective of a CEO;
- How a CEO’s thinking on sustainability is shaped;
- Understanding barriers that prevent CEOs from prioritising sustainability;
- How change agents can support their CEOs; and
- The characteristics of effective sustainability change agents in the eyes of a CEO.
My key take-away from participating in this research project is that change is personal and contextual. The edge between one’s own personal readiness for change and the reality of the business context determines what comes into the awareness for of individuals and what is seen to be possible or worthwhile doing.
Awareness of this interaction between the personal and the contextual matters a lot when going about engaging with leaders on the topic of sustainability – or any change process for that matter.
Here follows a sneak preview of the key characteristics of an effective change agent, as seen from the CEO perspective:
Effective change agents know the business
The number one characteristic raised by CEOs, board chairpersons and other sustainability change agents was the need for change agents to know the business.
Effective change agents have an established track record of making good decisions
Effective change agents connect their ideas to business strategy – not the other way around.
Effective change agents know when to bring ideas forward and know when to wait
Identifying ‘transition stages’ or time periods where change is more likely to take off requires patience on the part of change agents.
Effective change agents can break things into manageable chunks
CEOs pointed to the need to break big visions for change into more concrete, incremental steps that can be more readily absorbed by the business.
Effective change agents consistently demonstrate a commitment to the business
The boundary-spanning role of change agents can sometimes cause organisational insiders to question their loyalty. CEOs recommended that change agents send clear signals about where their allegiance lies.
Effective change agents are willing to challenge the CEO respectfully and be challenged themselves
Sustainability change agents need to recognise that their role may challenge how the CEO sees his or her own role in the organisation, or what the priorities of the organisation need to be at a given time.
Effective change agents harness their passion, yet keep their emotions in check
Change agents were cautioned that while they needed to inspire their CEO with their passion and commitment regarding sustainability issues, they need to steer clear of emotional pleas that may erode their credibility.
Effective change agents keep sustainability from being perceived as any one person’s pet project
A final, but important characteristic was that effective sustainability change agents should be able to keep sustainability from taking on the status of any one person or group’s pet project.
Tools, you mentioned tools, I hear you ask. The research team also produced three practical worksheets, which are described below.
Getting to know your CEO
This worksheet is designed to help you better understand your CEO, including his or her priorities, decision-making style, and leadership style, as well as what and who inspires and influences your CEO and his or her experience and engagement with sustainability.
Supporting your CEO
This worksheet helps you to reflect on a set of tactics to support your CEO and help him or her to catalyse better decision making around sustainability and to identify which of these tactics might be most appropriate for your own setting.
The Sustainability Change Agent Inventory
Based on the characteristics of successful sustainability change agents identified by CEOs, we developed a separate change agent inventory to help you reflect on your own readiness as a sustainability change agent and to help identify ways for you to strengthen your own capabilities and effectiveness.
Soon after the research is published in May the tools will be available at The Embedding Project website. I highly recommend that those wanting to influence change in the arena of sustainability use the tools for personal reflection.
Vanessa Otto-Mentz is head of the Group Strategy Unit at Santam and is an NBS SA Leadership Council member. She is a strategic change practitioner, researcher and co-active coach. She conducts projects with USB-ED, and teaches Strategic Management on USB’s MBA programme. Her field of expertise is enterprise risk, governance and strategic change leadership.