Nowadays, people want to work for a company that contributes something to the world. This is especially true for Millennials, who are sometimes called “The Purpose Generation.” The data backs this up: Nearly 40% of this generation have chosen a job specifically because of company sustainability. Even now, largely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Millennials (and members of Gen Z who are already working) are focused on societal issues. Therefore, companies that include topics like climate change, diversity and inclusion, and employee wellbeing in their company strategy benefit from higher levels of employee engagement.
Sustainability strategy is usually formed by the sustainability office and the board, higher up in the organization than most employees. Of course, top-level support is one of the key success factors of sustainability performance. Sustainability should structurally be on the board’s agenda. And yes, the “hard” factors like targets and governance structures have to be in place, and you have to pinpoint the people who will formally have a responsibility for achieving the strategy.
Often, employees don’t even know about their company’s sustainability goals and strategies. Organizations communicate about this topic to external stakeholders – likes investors – via their Annual Sustainability Reports. However, employees don’t read those. In other words, sustainability is not “marketed” internally. So how do we get everyone in the organization involved with sustainability? How do we make them enthusiastic about it? How do we engage them so they’re more engaged?
Next time a sustainability strategy is developed, think about the following ways to involve, activate, and create intrapreneurship among your employees.
The sustainability strategy development phase is the perfect time to involve employees.
In the same way that companies often involve external stakeholders to define the so-called “material issues” that should be on the agenda, you can ask employees for their input.
What do they think are relevant sustainability themes? What’s an initiative close to their hearts?
You can also use this opportunity to ask them about cultural aspects that are relevant for strategy development, such as what employees are proud of in relation to the company and what they see as its purpose. When input like this is used in the new strategy or the narrative around that strategy, you will have more support from the start.
Becoming a sustainable company starts with a vision, also called the “why” or purpose. No matter what name you give it, we’re re talking about the future a company envisions for itself, its customers, and society – the big picture of what the world will look like some years from now if it were up to the company.
This type of North Star is where the story of your organization and the societal role it aims to play begins. Storytelling is key to succeeding. Stories appeal to people and can spur them into action. Stories by default are also about change, and so are new strategies. Thus, it is important to develop a communications approach in which a narrative is created around the new strategy and goals. This can, for example, be in the form of a corporate story or strategic narrative.
At the same time, honest communication about current performance is needed, including talking about things that aren’t going well. If you don’t, the critics will zoom in and talk about them anyway, undermining your efforts to get “all noses in the same direction.”
Also, make sure that the different types of reports are structurally present or are in place for a longer period of time. A one-off event to present the new strategy with some fancy slides and a series of blogs or vlogs will not create a shared vision and understanding about sustainability.
Finally, don’t forget about the work environment. One of the key elements of organizational culture is having so-called artifacts that embody the North Star – concrete symbols that show “who we are”/”where we want to go.” If you are going to be known (in the market) as the premier company when it comes to circular products, then you’re going to have to make sure your internal stakeholders believe this as well. So, they need to see it – not just hear about it.
One of the key drivers for engagement is a sense of autonomy, being able to steer your own ship. So how do we get people to come up with these autonomous actions? Intrapreneurship. Simply put, this means people with an entrepreneurial mindset taking initiative around new ideas and ventures from within a company. Focused on social or environmental change, it’s usually called social intrapreneurship. This not only contributes to employee engagement on sustainability (because: autonomy) but also helps achieve the company’s sustainability goals if employees know what the sustainability strategy and goals are.
There are three things leading companies are doing to create an ecosystem for intrapreneurship: making funding available, providing training for intrapreneurial skill development, and stimulating internal networking. This should obviously not be implemented in a silo but be part of the overall innovation strategy. As such, a more lowkey way to start is by implementing a “20% project,” where employees can spend 20% of their work time on their own projects.
Another way is by setting up “Dragon’s Den” competitions where employees can pitch their ideas and obtain funding for it. By organizing such an event, employees are literally activated. It’s definitely an engaging way to start a new sustainability strategy or direction.
Expert Opinion by
With a background in corporate sustainability consulting, Jacqueline has helped companies envision and implement sustainability goals. She knows what it takes to align business goals with the Sustainable Development Goals and what measures will improve the company’s ranking in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
She can help with reporting just as much as with organizing a more sustainable supply chain for the back office. With Jacqueline’s industry knowledge and her organizational skills, projects are delivered on time and within budget.