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Culture is the foundation of sustainability

By Brian Eagar, CEO of TowerStone

Brian Eagar_TowerStone

Not only does September put the spring back in our step, Arbor week and Heritage Day also reminds us to invest in the environmental and social sustainability of our beautiful world. However, although values like sustainability and inclusion are budding blossoms all over the dry branches of past mistakes, it will not bear lasting fruit without consistent effort.

Modern businesses are physically contributing to environmentally and socially sustainable ways of doing business in many ways, such as minimising packaging, decreasing energy and water usage, curbing pollution, implementing hybrid working, offering diversity and inclusion training, and hiring locally. But the less celebrated efforts spent on changing their cultures often go unseen, and are perhaps the most effective ways of treating the cause rather than the symptoms.

I find it incredibly encouraging to see how many of our clients (across retail, manufacturing and mining industries) are embracing the required culture change and championing values like respect, fairness, equality, family, sustainability, inclusion, environmentally friendly and connected. But what leaves me even more hopeful is experiencing the leaders starting the necessary conversations to keep getting better by engaging their senior teams in robust, facilitated conversation and creating platforms for the larger workforce to engage.

Driving this narrative is imperative for organisations like our global mining clients who are compelled to minimise their impact on the environment and uplift the communities they operate in. In fact, failing to conserve their immediate environment and effectively employ and include members of the local communities will have disastrous repercussions for their operations. But I firmly believe that entrenching values akin to sustainability and inclusion to promote environmental and social sustainability will benefit all organisations.

It is important to remember that championing people and planet does not only impact the environment and society externally, but also inspires internally to improve engagement and performance. In other words, it is not something you do to impress your clients and stakeholders; it’s not a fad. It is a culture you drive from within, which then benefits the business and ultimately has wider benefits for society. This is confirmed by the report recently released by JP Morgan. This report compared the Human Capital Factor developed by Irrational Capital to other Environmental, Social & Governance investing indicators, showing that culture is key in driving these initiatives successfully and profitably. 

Nurturing an inclusive culture is the truest way of bringing your values to life, and the foundation of sustainability. As the familiar saying goes: “Charity starts at home”. Before trying to improve the sustainability of our society and the environment, start with your organisational culture and the ripple effect will speak for itself. 

This need to be responsible towards our own people first is also apparent from culture surveys we have run across organisational levels, from frontline to executive. Shared vision is often requested as a value, showing employees’ need to be part of something bigger than themselves. Values like fairness, respect, social responsibility, equality, open communication and honesty also come up regularly as either appreciated or required. To meet these needs, and impact sustainability positively as a result, our clients have implemented a number of impactful initiatives, including the examples that follow.

Deepening psychological safety

Psychological safety must be in place before any culture can shift towards improved sustainability. According to Amy Edmondson (Harvard Business School Professor) this can be defined as: “The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. With a deficiency in innovative ideas and honest feedback, an organisation does not know how to change. In accordance with this, when honesty is requested as a value in culture surveys, it seems that employees value the opportunity to be honest without fear of repercussions even more than they value honesty from the organisation. This is why many of our clients ask for regular feedback, either by way of anonymous surveys/assessments, or open, facilitated conversation between team members. This not only provides the feedback they need to do business more sustainably, but also promotes a culture where it is safe to be honest.

Lifting your values off the wall

When you decide to commit to a value as part of your organisation’s identity, it can’t remain empty words. We guide our clients to attach practical, measurable behaviours or habits to each value to ensure they are exemplified on a daily basis. Some of our clients also implement a values moment at the start of each meeting to give team members an opportunity to share moments where they experienced someone exemplifying a value. This helps to ensure that the values that support social and environmental sustainability are exemplified and celebrated daily.

Consistent and continuous messaging from top leadership

Never underestimate the power of an authentic message from top leadership, of course provided that their actions speak even louder than their words. One of our clients shared a series of video messages from the CEO to entrench their value of inclusion. Another client formed a committee to drive consistent communication to support establishing their desired culture and are making it a key focus of all their leadership development programmes. If you truly want your organisation to make a positive impact on sustainability, you have to keep the conversation going. 

I am confident that these, often simple, initiatives will keep chipping away at the climate change and inequality crises to ultimately change our world for the better. As the hare and the tortoise taught us, slow and steady often wins the race. If we start with ourselves and focus on the incremental gains, we will make a difference.

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