Why you might not succeed at sustainability: Enrolment vs. engagement

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Justin Temblett-Wood

Written by Justin Temblett-Wood

Why you might not succeed at sustainability: Enrolment vs. engagement

Operating sustainably isn’t a choice for organisations anymore. It’s critical to our future success and it's a competitive advantage in a marketplace of increasing stakeholder demand. 

A recent Accenture study drew further attention to this shift. It found that 65% of employees believed organisations should be responsible for leaving people ‘net better off’ through work and noted a 28% increase in investor signatories to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Investment agreement in 2020. It also noted that 66% of consumers plan to make more sustainable or ethical purchases over the next six months.

Many of us showcase our commitment to net-zero targets but very few leaders are running the diagnostics needed to assess sustainability readiness. The train has left the station but where are you on your sustainability journey? Is your organisation on board?


A tough business proposition

The truth is sustainability can be a really hard sell across organisations in the short term. Proving the value of carbon reduction that might affect the share price at the next quarterly earnings call is, well, tricky. 

Accenture found the three main challenges hindering organisations’ sustainability goals to be: “A failure to understand stakeholder relationships”; “A lack of insight which doesn’t embed stakeholder needs in decision-making”; and “An inability to instil wide-ranging ownership” for sustainability across an organisation.

Assessing organisational readiness via diagnostics helps leaders understand why sustainability projects are failing or may fail, to progress. They highlight the areas where the car is on autopilot because of competing commitments, organisational assumptions, lack of employee engagement, and more.

Leaders need to pause and take stock of how our businesses are operating in this current moment if we’re to ensure we have the adequate systems and foundations from which to play out our sustainability commitments. Doing so puts us back in the driving seat.


Implementing sustainability as a strategic agenda

Most sustainability offices have evolved out of CSR departments to sit more centrally within our organisations these days, but sustainability goals are still managed in multivarious ways. 

For some businesses they’re little more than a communications statement, while others have integrated them into the company vision and justified them at a brand and purpose level with a clear delegation of authority and direct reports to the CEO.  

Most organisations sit somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum, but the crux of their successes all comes down to the same thing – the execution of commitments. 


Competing background commitments

Teams already have a lot going on and existing workloads run parallel to assumptions around how projects should be resourced. We speak at Achieve Breakthrough about competing background commitments, and it’s crucial to any project’s success, especially one as complex as sustainability, that teams are consciously aligned..

To enact any strategic agenda successfully we need to engage people in a different way. We can’t give a top-down mandate on sustainability and then ask teams to implement it alongside present-day workflows and project resources. Instead, we have to have new conversations to work out how our organisation already sees the problem. If we don’t, sustainability projects won’t be given the priority level needed to drive change.


Assessing the existing culture

Achieve Breakthrough uses diagnostics tools in many contexts, typically around culture. These allow us to map the values of an individual and team alongside organisational ones, so that we understand how employees see their roles within the overall structure. 

Given the breadth and depth of scope that sustainability entails there’s a range of different ways our teams might interpret the problem organisationally, as well as how they see it progressing in their role. Some might see progress in the removal of disposable coffee cups while others want to push for supply chains that are kinder to the planet. A diagnostic such as the Barrett Tool allows us to understand how people see sustainability playing out. 


Enroling our teams

When constructing a home, a builder will choose the building foundations based on the type of soil they’re laying them into. The foundations distribute the weight of the house and stop the plot’s subsoil from spreading and causing an unequal settlement.

Leaders need to construct sustainability projects in the same way. Determining the values and needs within our teams allows us to build a dialogue framework for enrolment and champion stakeholders across the entire business ecosystem. As Dr Kotter’s ‘8 Step Process for Leading Change’ makes clear: change begins with having something at stake to create a sense of urgency. 


Collaborate versus compete

Fostering human connection and communal ownership in this way is the core reason why some businesses have sustainability projects and others only have aspirations. It also protects our proverbial house from structural problems further down the line. 

The scale of response required to see through a net-zero transition across our entire business industry is bigger than any one organisation. But by fostering resolve and commitment in our individual organisations, we can help to drive successful change across the entire ecosystem.

Looking to create an impossible future? Get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your sustainability ambitions.


Published 10/05/2023

Subscribe by Email

Achieve more breakthroughs. Get expert leadership ideas, insights and advice straight to your inbox every Saturday, as well as the occasional bit of news on us, such as offers and invitations to participate in things like events, webinars and surveys. Read. Lead. Breakthrough.