October 28, 2021

If your company is pursuing a strategy for environmental sustainability, it is very likely that you are already taking some type of action. It could be that your initiative is offsetting the environmental impact with Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) like planting trees. It could also be that you are implementing a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions related to your products and services, or even the production and supply chain. For example, your goal could be finding a formula that makes laundry detergent more ecological or you might be thinking about a greater use of rail in its logistics.

The majority of companies who have a comprehensive and strategic approach to address environmental sustainability are also trying to reduce the emissions of their clients and employees. These companies seek to influence their stakeholders’ decisions through a series of informative communication and training activities.

But to achieve the real change demanded by COP26, and to contain the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, we, as a collective, need to go further, much further. This is no longer a question about how small the degrees are, but instead a critical step for change that we need to make. For some that may sound scary, maybe even undoable, but the transformational changes achieved by organizations during 2020 have shown just how adaptable a company can be. 

What approaches can make this change effective, fast and pervasive at a global level?

1. Rethinking the sustainability strategy as a systemic change that includes both hard and soft elements.

Sustainability is in fact a complex change, in which many variables come into play and quickly modify the context. Beyond a change in structures, processes and tools – in change management literature this is referred to as the ‘hard side of change’-, it is necessary to create a proper culture, or ‘sustainability mindset’, aligning values ​​and skills with strategic objectives – otherwise known as the ‘soft side’ of change.

Companies have already experienced the risks of facing a change from the hard side only through the recent case of digital transformation: only the ones that supported and included people throughout the change process and strategy have revealed striking results (Tabrizi et al., 2019).

Environmental sustainability, therefore, is not achievable on a large scale if people are not involved. It becomes strictly necessary to have their buy in on a vision that often strongly breaks the status quo.

2. Equipping CEOs and Board members with ‘reflective capacity’ and a long-term perspective, that is courageous in imagining the future.

Sylvia Scherer spent 7 years in the Sustainability Strategy Team at BMW Group. She is a business coach and also a member of CoachHub’s Advisory Board today. Sylvia emphasizes the need to develop skills around forming bold visions, being able to imagine a positive future and around communication, as sustainability requires rethinking products, services, processes, etc. In an industry where driving a car is a symbol of freedom, self-driving cars are a big disruption in strong discontinuity with the past. “A few years ago, only a few top managers in the automotive industry could imagine cars without steering wheels.” she says.

To move forward, however, CEOs need the ability to communicate and engage in a vision and then generate traction, acting on the context.

Research on the ‘reflective capacity’ of CEOs reveals a strong correlation between the company’s sustainability performance and this ability. Reflective capacity is both self and system-awareness, allows the ability to observe and make decisions from a meta-perspective, makes meaning of context using  diversified sources of information and a holistic approach. We know in fact that, in the rush of solving complex problems, our brain tends to rely on fast, automatic thinking, which however offers a partial and limited rationality. For this purpose, it’s useful to be reminded that at the core of the coaching process sits the reflexivity that bolsters coachee’s flexibility and strategic thinking when dealing with the organizational uncertainty and the reaction to emergent, unpredictable issues (Day et al., 2008) and the expansion of personal awareness and insights (Grant, 2007).

3. Rethinking the values ​​of the organization in support of the sustainable strategy, guiding the leadership in reflecting them through their actions.

Values based Coaching is, in this case, an excellent support as it allows us to explore our own values ​​and how they guide our choices, and to understand how they are aligned and in support of the organizational ones. This awareness motivates us to create and maintain behavioral change, because it encourages us to act in coherence with the values ​​that prove to be foundational for us. It is also easier to avoid the inconsistency that is generated by the lack of alignment between our values ​​and our actions.

4. Develop Environmental Competencies in leaders and change agents.

In a paper on the Competences for Environmental Sustainability, (Dzhengiz & Niesten 2019) describe the ‘Environmental Skills’ as a set of:

  • systemic thinking skills, to develop the ability to make decisions in complex scenarios;
  • ‘interaction’ skills to navigate relationships with multiple stakeholders and grasp their different perspectives, but also to communicate and influence them;
  • skills related to empathy towards social, ethical and environmental issues and the ability to reason and act with a long-term perspective.

It is therefore not enough to be trained in technical knowledge on the subject of sustainability. A specific personal development journey can be a game changer for leaders and change agents involved in cascading sustainable initiatives.

For this purpose, one of the most effective tools is systemic coaching, relying strongly on Peter Senge’s theories, able to guide coachees in understanding what is their part in the entire system, how they can influence it, and how to take responsibility.

5. Developing responsibility and self-efficacy in every single person, to develop change agility.

We know that, during a change that is lived as stressful and unpredictable, people can react defensively, ranging from denial to frustration and anger till a feeling of being helpless.

The feeling of being able to influence the system shifts the person’s role from that of a defenseless victim to that of an actor of change. We have all experienced this sensation at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have felt powerless in front of what was happening, but small daily actions, such as washing our hands or wearing a mask, acted as a way to restore control over an uncontrollable context, taking care of ourselves and others. Self-efficacy is, for this reason, a key factor in helping individuals deal with situations that are novel, unpredictable, or stressful (Schunk, 1983). In this sense, coaching has been shown to increase both self-efficacy (Baron and Morin, 2010) and a solution-focused thinking (Grant et al., 2012).

Companies that are willing to bring forward a thorough sustainable change have the imperative to work towards the generation of a new mindset in their people, putting the Planet at the same priority level of Profit, and promoting a deep sense of responsibility in every single person in the company.

We at CoachHub are ready to make our part in this challenge.

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