Toby Webb has 15 ideas your chief executive won’t be able to resist

Convincing senior leadership that sustainable business matters remains a major challenge. Here’s a few proven ways of doing so, in no particular order.

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

Find the one most amenable to the agenda, and have them tabling board agenda questions and adding some steel to your corporate responsibility 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 CEO’s, 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.

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? This can be connected to the responsibility agenda specifically or in general. Map out roles and tasks/speeches for the board aligned with their interests.

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 leadership. I can’t tell you exactly how to do this, but kids count.

5) Present your CEO with solid case studies of opportunity

Yes, this is blindingly obvious. But too many heads of corporate responsibility 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 “commercializing sustainability”

6) Pitch it as a governance issue

Few heads of corporate responsibility 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.

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 a seed that means 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.

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 moving up the agenda? The Plastics Disclosure Project is a new one gaining traction. Why not use it, or something else?

9) Evoke the competitive spirit

The idea of keeping up with peers, and overtaking them, is vital to get a CEO motivated on corporate responsibility. Competition should be framed in ways they can understand: less truck miles per tonne, lower power costs, better employee engagement

10) Use a bucket of cold water

This is a serious point. Shock tactics are risky, but some can work. Bring in a couple of outside voices (not consultants) who can tell a business leaders’ meeting some home truths about the competition. This must be followed quickly by a focus on the opportunity to catch up and overtake.

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. There’s nothing like meeting a smallholder farmer on two dollars a day to convince a CEO of the moral and logical case.

12) Put them in front of some critical stakeholders

CEOs must understand how others see them. Middle age male (mostly) delusion is a big problem. 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 unfortunate live

It’s a simple idea. Take your board or some of them, and show them the poverty that exists so close to top financial centres all over the world. Just because it’s old school doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.

14) Demonstrate how motivating responsible business is for employees

Relying on the employee annual or quarterly survey is not enough. Use proper studies, books, credible sources, and tell stories. Create annual individual sustainability innovation awards and make the board judge them, with some outside help.

15) Take out the jargon

CEOs hate to feel left behind. That may invoke a reaction of retreat. Take out the acronyms and talk the language of simple business improvements.

business strategy  sustainable business  Toby Webb 

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