Investing in the intangibles are what keep sustainability policies alive — and evolving.
Leading Sustainable Organizations
Steve Zaffron, the CEO of the Vanto Group and co-author of the national best selling business book, The Three Laws of Performance, believes that sustainability nirvana occurs when social responsibility moves from being expressed in one-off initiatives, siloed in the corporate CSR office, to a way of being and acting that is embedded in the company culture and work habits of employees. Achieving this kind of breakthrough in an established company, with its legacy systems and time-honored practices, is proving to be a tough nut to crack for many sustainability executives.
Zaffron has worked with a diverse group of organizations — from rocket-scientist NASA to labor-intensive mining — to achieve this kind of deep organizational renovation. His experience shows that leaps in human performance come less from tangible investments in things like automation, equipment or compensation schemes, and more through intangible transformations in the way people in organizations see themselves and others.
“It’s not an easy thing to change the way in which people see the world and themselves,” says Zaffron. “It takes time to develop.” And time is an underappreciated variable in sustainability. “It’s obvious when you say it, that sustainability means through time,” states Zaffron, but while perhaps obvious, managing time is a recurring sustainability challenge.
If it interjects itself in business sustainability, time usually appears as a constraint imposed by market short-termism. “We’re talking about long-term engagements that are substantial investments,” says Zaffron. “Managers have to know they’re in for the long haul.” Unfortunately, today’s sustainability management is dominated by the search for “quick wins,” which according to a 2008 report account for over two-thirds of corporate sustainability initiatives.
As opposed to the tangible “quick wins” mindset, the intangible benefits arising from embedded sustainability behaviors take sustained effort to produce. But over time, they create differentiated capabilities that can set your organization apart in the marketplace.
One of Vanto Group’s first clients, for example, was a copper company with 4,000 employees, three mines, 11 unions, and history of labor unrest, strikes and violence. The unions were founded to protect the workers from management, and management felt confronted by antagonistic union leadership.