Wielding Influence as a Sustainability Leader

With small budgets but big responsibilities, wielding influence is a critical skill for sustainability leaders. Influence, and how to get it, are among the topics explored in the latest Green Research corporate sustainability study.

A handful of top sustainability executives believe they have total control of their companies’ sustainability strategies. Most share influence with others, but nonetheless feel they are in the strategic driver’s seat. Three quarters of them rate their influence over sustainability strategy at their company as four on a five-point scale. Perceived influence is somewhat correlated with proximity to the C.E.O. but other factors affect influence, such as the talents of the sustainability leader, the board’s commitment to sustainability and cultural factors that determine a company’s ability to adapt and to act on stated priorities.


Corporate sustainability starts with strategy and continues through tactics, policies and procedures. In the areas of communications and external affairs, sustainability executives generally perceive themselves to have substantial influence. This is partly due to where the sustainability function reports in corporations: an earlier Green Research study found that 30 percent of sustainability departments report into public affairs or marketing groups. But when it comes to other corporate functions such as procurement, supply chain or product marketing, they carry less sway. Over a quarter of respondents to our survey report having little or no influence over supply chain policies or procedures at their company and another half have moderate influence. Many companies are just beginning to contemplate how to obtain sustainability performance improvements from their suppliers.

It is rare that sustainability executive have much influence over the finance function at their companies. At some companies, finance has taken on the role of calculating and reporting sustainability metrics such as carbon emissions. With a reputation for sober and credible reporting, the finance department can raise the credibility of such reports. At a few companies we know, the head of sustainability has enlisted the finance department as an ally. One chief sustainability officer told us that his CFO has helped identify unspent funds and applied them to sustainability projects planned for the coming year, and has approved sustainability related projects with a lower rate of return than the usual investment hurdle.

How to Boost Influence

The most effective means of enhancing one’s influence over sustainability strategy and tactics at work is participating in face-to-face meetings with senior leadership. Eighty-three percent of respondents to our survey cited this as a key means of extending their influence, more than any other choice. Among top sustainability executives, the figure is 90 percent. Sustainability executives should push for face-to-face meetings, including dedicated time with the C.E.O. and at board meetings. Some companies, like Alliance Boots, the U.K. retailer, have board-level sustainability committees that meet regularly and are governed like any other topical committed such as audit or compensation.

The second-most effective approach for extending influence on sustainability inside a company, according to our respondents, is helping executives in other departments develop the business case for sustainability initiatives. Sustainability departments should compile case studies of successful sustainability initiatives at other companies, along with costs and benefits and financial models. Acting as an internal consultant and champion who can help obtain greater budget for other departmental leaders is a powerful way of boosting influence.

Another potent method for building influence inside an organization is through the use of third-party sustainability rankings. Sustainability executives cite those rankings and their companies’ standings in them to motivate employees and galvanize action. “We’ve used DJSI as a benchmark, and the questionnaire has helped drive certain reporting and analysis initiatives internally,” one chief sustainability executive told us. “I think the most immediate implication is a sense of pride that tightens bonds between employees and strengthens both their connection to their workplace and their resolve to continue to make progress.”

For more information on the Green Research Annual Sustainability Executive Survey research, click here.

[This post was originally published on sustainablebrands.com]

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