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Have Impact at Every Stage of the Sustainability Journey


A sustainability manager’s role changes through a company’s sustainability journey. Research based on 21 case studies shows best practices.

If you are a sustainability manager, you are a trailblazer. Companies created these positions as sustainability became a strategic issue over the last few decades. But many sustainability managers have been left to shape their roles on their own.

In our research, we explored what makes sustainability managers effective. We spoke with dozens of sustainability managers. These managers are charged with raising sustainability issues, launching sustainability initiatives, and ensuring that other functions, from production to marketing, implement these efforts.

We admired the passion of the managers we spoke with, but we also felt their pain. They’ve got big jobs but as just one person in a complex organization, it can be hard to make a difference.

Here’s what we learned: At each stage of an organization’s sustainability journey, the sustainability manager faces different challenges. In this article, we describe challenges and solutions through the story of “Jessica.” She’s a composite of the many managers we spoke with.

About our research: We conducted 21 case studies of companies in a range of industries in Australia and India. We interviewed sustainability managers and external experts, and drew on additional data on the companies and their sustainability practices.

Challenge #1: Lack of role clarity. “My colleagues have no idea what I do!”

When organizations first start on their sustainability journey, they often do not have a clear plan. They hire a sustainability manager (often just to be seen doing the right thing). The role might be marginalized and poorly understood — both by the sustainability manager who occupies it and by their colleagues.

Jessica, a sustainability manager in a mid-sized mining company, describes her experience:

I am my organization’s first sustainability manager, and so there is no blueprint for my job. I struggle to explain my responsibilities to colleagues — even I am rather fuzzy on the details of my role. I’m not part of the senior decision-making group. It’s frustrating.

For sustainability managers, the priority at this early stage is developing clarity around their roles and finding ways to be heard and collaborate with others in the organization.

Here’s how Jessica decided to create clarity and visibility:

I’m going to focus on “materiality” — identifying the social and environmental issues that pose the most risk to my organization. Then I can develop a plan to address these risks, and present the analysis formally to top management.

I also need to communicate and connect with others in the company. I will work with my company’s communications team: maybe I’ll publish an internal sustainability newsletter. And I will start a company sustainability committee, as a way to launch collaboration with other functions.

Identifying key issues can help a sustainability manager define her role, and framing sustainability as a “risk” is likely to resonate with boards and senior managers. Jessica’s outreach activities can help colleagues understand the sustainability manager’s role and where they fit in. Jessica is keeping sustainability front and center in the organization.

Challenge #2: Data fatigue. “My stats are compelling, so why do their eyes glaze over?”

As a sustainability manager, your communication style needs to change over time. Early on, hard numbers give your business case credibility. Highlighting the risks of environmental degradation and climate change through statistics is a useful foot in the door strategy. But once decision-makers understand the risks, more data don’t motivate action. People gradually become desensitized.

Several years into her sustainability manager role, Jessica describes making this transition:

I’ve successfully focused my organization’s attention on a few key environmental and social risks. Now I want to highlight the impacts of our mining operations on local Indigenous communities. But when I just present statistics about Indigenous communities to motivate action, no one seems to see the urgency.

Our advice is to balance statistics with storytelling. People relate to stories. Purposeful storytelling enables sustainability managers to target the minds and hearts of company decision-makers. Leaders’ emotional investment can allow organizations to move beyond managing stakeholders to meaningfully engaging stakeholders.

Here’s how Jessica tried to influence her company’s decision-makers – and build meaningful external engagement:

I decided to invite Indigenous representatives to the organizational meetings where senior decision-makers will be present (of course with advance notice and buy-in on all sides). I will facilitate these meetings so that the Indigenous stakeholders have an opportunity to share their experiences and explain how mining activities are changing their way of life. I think that these personal stories will spark meaningful conversations about how my company might reduce the impact of mining on the land and increase community benefits.   

For continued and deeper engagement, integrate storytelling. Stories help build a bridge between knowledge and wisdom.

Challenge #3: Wider impact. “I want bigger change and I want it now!”

Real sustainability requires collective action and a long-term focus. That means building partnerships across organizational boundaries, including with supply chain partners and other organizations in the industry — even competitors. The sheer scale and complexity of sustainability challenges can be overwhelming.

Five years into her job as a sustainability manager, Jessica describes her new focus on external outreach:

I think the company’s sustainability efforts are in a good place. I have clarity around my role, support from top management, and a seat at the table for relevant decisions. I work closely with colleagues in other divisions — production, marketing, human resources. I think of myself as an octopus: inside the organization, my tentacles spread everywhere.

At the same time, I realize my organization alone has limited impact. So, last year, I joined the board of our industry association, and I am using my position to advocate for government action on carbon pricing.

I also think differently about competition. I think that on sustainability, we can cooperate within the industry. So, I look at how the industry can set standards for supply chain sustainability, or share knowledge around ecosystem restoration after a mine closes. I’m working with my counterparts in other companies to collectively address these challenges. 

Collaboration is powerful, and partnerships with traditional competitors are needed for meaningful action on sustainability. This approach is co-opetition: simultaneously competing in some areas and cooperating in other areas. Collaboration across a sector creates faster and more fundamental positive change.  

Different Strategies for Different Stages

We are excited for Jessica, and all the managers who reach this point.

We agree that it is not an easy journey; on some days, it may feel far easier to just pretend that the problem does not exist. But the bottom line is that we cannot wish this problem away; businesses cannot succeed on a failing planet.

Sustainability is complex. Issues evolve and organizations change. At each stage, certain priorities make sense. At the start, sustainability managers may need to actively shape their jobs (sometimes called job crafting) and clearly communicate the business case for addressing social and environmental risks. We also advocate setting up cross-functional teams or committees quite early on.

Further along their journey, sustainability managers will need to hone their storytelling skills.

And finally, to continue making a meaningful difference, sustainability managers must be prepared to go beyond their company’s boundaries and work with their counterparts in other organizations.

About the Research

This post is based on the authors’ 2019 article, ‘Shaping and being shaped: How organizational structure and managerial discretion co-evolve in new managerial roles’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 64(3), 619-658. This work won NBS’s 2019 Research Impact on Practice Award, co-sponsored with the Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) Division of the Academy of Management.

About the Authors

Dr. Sukhbir Sandhu is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Ethics at the University of South Australia Business School. Dr Sandhu’s research focuses on social and environmental sustainability issues that confront organizations and societies. Her program of research investigates the external drivers that push organizations to act on sustainability issues and the internal strategy and structure changes required to successfully accommodate these social and environmental initiatives.

Dr. Sandhu has a PhD in Strategy (Sustainability Strategies of Firms) from Lincoln University, New Zealand. Dr Sandhu has published in leading management and sustainability journals. She has won numerous awards for her research and teaching. She has also been elected to the leadership track at the Organizations and Natural Environment (ONE) Division of the Academy of Management. Dr Sandhu serves as UniSA Business School lead for the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME).

Professor Carol Kulik is a Research Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of South Australia Business School. Her research focuses on the effective management of workforce diversity. Current projects are investigating strategies for closing the gender gap in salary negotiations, reducing stereotype threat among mature-age workers, and motivating organizations to invest in diversity management.

Professor Kulik has published over 90 articles in leading management and applied psychology journals. She is an elected fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Academy of Management, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Professor Kulik is in a 5-year leadership track at the Academy of Management (AOM); the track includes serving as AOM President in 2018-2019.

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