Why Sustainability Isn’t Sticking with the CXO Office

Over the next three months, I will be working with the University of Oregon Sustainability Leadership Program and Sustainable Industries to prepare for the online launch of new nationwide courses for the UO program.  In addition, SI, UO and Newport Consulting are partnering on a study of CXO sentiment around the topic of sustainability and executive engagement.  My article, the first of a series of three as part of this partnership also featuring colleague and Newport Consulting Principal Cindy Jennings, focuses on the issues facing the CXO office.  Cindy’s offering will suggest a hypothesis for why CXO behavior seems counter to triple bottom-line decision making.

Many CXOs survived a near-death experience during the Great Recession. Can they move from bottom-line thinking to triple bottom-line decision making?

It was the winter of 2009. Some would call it the “winter of our discontent” in the Motor City. As history would show, the U.S. automotive industry was hours away from stopping – not due to a major labor strike or natural disaster, but caused by a meltdown of the liquidity market.

I was meeting with a CXO who was affable and open to new ideas and conversations. We had met earlier at a local economic lunch and exchanged pleasantries. Now, in his C-level offices of a multi-billion dollar automotive supplier, his candor was striking.

“We just survived a near-death experience,” he summarized slowly and purposefully, as if he had given the answer a thousand times before to his employees. “As far as the triple-bottom line goes, we are going to focus on the bottom line for the next three to four years.”

And that was that. Sustainability and the thought of strategically embracing the triple-bottom line was off the table.

Fast forward those three to four years. While gains have been made to move executive thinking on the topic of sustainability and triple-bottom line decision making, little has changed in the psyche of CXO executives in many global organizations. Why?

No doubt the issue of sustainability is on the minds of executives. Countless studies confirm this. The now-infamousUN Global Compact Survey (2010) indicated 93% of global executives believed sustainability would have an impact or a profound impact on their operations. Striking in those figures was an improbably 100% affirmative response from automotive executives like the same CXO who scoffed at my overtures. A more recent study by Deloitte, CFOs Are Coming to the Table (2012), illustrates that spend on sustainability has risen commensurate with an increase in sustainability activities inside the organization. But the same study admits only 39% feel that it is important to communicate the value of sustainability to their employees.

If so many CXOs believe there is a strategic importance to move towards sustainable business models and triple-bottom line decision making, then why is it that a minority of those same executives feel the need to engage employees by communicating the importance of these business practices? I submit that there is an “engagement gap” among the majority of top executives when it comes to sustainability. Many are able to “talk the talk” but only a minority is able to “walk the walk.” I suggest three key areas to consider as possible reasons why this gap exists.

You can read the full article on the Sustainable Industries UO page.  Stay tuned for the next article in the series and an invitation to participate in our CXO Engagement Survey.

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Filed under Audit and Oversight, Change Management and Leadership, Compliance, Financial Management, Millennial Worker Shift, Operations, Risk Management, Sustainability

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