Sustainability Strategy and Middle Management: The Missing Link

In a recent post on her blog,  Alice Korngold, President & CEO at Korngold Consulting, wrote that “in 2010, CSR shot right up the corporate ladder and landed directly in the board room, with leadership and accountability at the top.” [ 1]

This trend was also spotted, earlier this year, by the authors of  the UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study:  “A New Era of Sustainability” [2]. According to the study, the global economic downturn in 2010 did little to diminish corporate commitment to sustainability with 80 percent of the CEOs saying it had actually raised the importance of sustainability. 

Prior to 2010, the role of employees, individually and organized in “green teams”, at eBay for example [3], was at the forefront of the sustainability scene. 

This year, the focus has shift from employee’s engagement – still recognized as a key contributor though  [4] – to the role and impact of company’s leadership and board room. Experts agree that corporate values consistent with sustainability as well as top management’s visible support and commitment are the foundation of any successful sustainability strategy. However, while CSR reached the top of the corporate ladder, little attention has been paid to the role of middle management [5].

In my opinion, middle management is critical, because, on one hand, if the sustainability message from the top doesn’t reach the employees,  it’s most likely to be simply “greenwashing” and a PR exercise. On the other hand, if sustainability and CSR-related activities rely on a small group of motivated employees only, as a result of their personal values and beliefs, then the company is probably missing an opportunity and even the most dedicated employees might give up after a while due to a lack of local support from their direct management, no time or resources assigned to develop their activities, often considered as a waste of time, not directly productive or insufficiently related to business goals.

According to a study, conducted at a large multinational pharmaceuticals corporation in 2005 [6], supervisors behavior toward sustainability depended exclusively on their perceived level of sustainability commitment from top management. Their own beliefs and values, however, did not seem to be decisive drivers, as even managers with a low level of interest in environmental or social topics proved to be effective sustainability champions. This observation definitely emphasizes how important is the message sent by top management when pursuing a successful  sustainability strategy. “Corporate values”, wrote the authors of the study, “have a strong influence on individual behavior in organizations, particularly on middle managers/supervisors whose role requires them to disseminate these values to employees throughout the organization”.

That’s the reason why the authors explained that: “somehow, the message and implications of sustainability heralded from the top need to reach every employee. Supervisors, as middle and low-level managers, provide the critical link between employees and top management… Supervisors who are in day-to-day contact with employees have direct influence on their work-related attitudes and behaviors.”

Based on my experience, gained in the implementation of sustainability strategies, both in large corporations or SMBs, here are some of the actions that middle management can take to “walk the talk” on sustainability and how those actions can help.

  • Explain and support the strategy to speak “one voice” on sustainability issues. If there’s a gap between how employees perceive the corporate values and the way middle management behaves, employees won’t trust top management’s sustainability strategy. However, when managers carry the message and execute the strategy, employees are more likely to step in and contribute effectively.
  • Listen openly and attentively to employee suggestions for environmental and social improvements, adopt their suggestions and encourage initiatives at local level  to leverage the “grassroots effect”.
  • Encourage training & development on environmental and social issues to help building up new skills and competences.
  • Develop a culture of transparence, business ethics and honesty that will impact not only the employees but the other stakeholders they interact with, customers, suppliers, business partners etc.
  • Reward best practices and behaviors, by sharing, for example, those best practices during team meetings, annual conferences, internal newsletters or even communications to external stakeholders.
  • Make it part of individual performance assessment by setting specific sustainability KPIs to get a better understanding of current sustainability performance and being able to report tangible results and improvements.
  • Lead by example to get greater credibility among current and potential employees.

In the above mentioned study, the authors also wrote that “if top management espouses values of sustainability, it is imperative that supervisors internalize these values and behave in ways that encourage sustainability behaviors among their employees.” In my opinion that confirms that getting the right message through to middle management is important but that other actions might be necessary to help them “internalize” sustainability values. In other words, relying on “the perceived level of sustainability commitment from top management only”, as suggested in the study, might work in some companies but in many others it might not be enough.

How to get middle management on board?

  • Leverage internal communication. As sustainability grows in importance for companies, sustainability communication and reporting have become increasingly important. However they are mostly seen as an external activity only, focused on customers, analysts and shareholders, failing to reach internal stakeholders. Internal newsletters, team meetings, or other corporate events should be leveraged as much as possible.
  • Develop specific training and coaching programs. Many companies have developed training programs for employees to support their sustainability strategy, but few companies have developed, so far, specific tools for supervisors and managers.
  • Set up specific and measurable sustainability objectives and, ideally, use them as part of managers’ performance assessments, salary and bonus calculation.  
  • Encourage teamwork. Assigning specific objectives to each team or department can help leverage, and develop, teamwork. Healthy competition between teams has also proven to be a potential motivator.
  •  Give incentives: reward best practices and initiatives.

 What’s in it for me as a manager?

Increased employee’s motivation, lower absenteeism and employee turnover. Those are some of the benefits that are usually observed in companies that have a clear sustainability strategy and effective CSR practices.

  • Healthier employees : you don’t have to cancel your traditional office party or Friday’s gathering at the pub after work but sustainability activities offer a vast range of much healthier activities for your direct reports – individually or as team, from company-sponsored volunteering programs to outdoors team-building events.
  • Develop employee skills: acquired through volunteering or by leading an internal, or external, sustainability project, those skills will often contribute effectively to employee’s and team productivity.
  • Attract & retain talents : it’s commonly accepted now that “generation Y” will make their career choices based on other criteria than the previous generation. Among those criteria, sustainability occupies a top rank.
  • Encourage & develop teamwork: sustainability activities can give a perfect opportunity to develop team spirit, support each other through turbulent economic times, help sharing common values.
  • Positive impact of all stakeholders = employees, customers, providers , local community…

The bottom line? : Reduce costs, increase benefits.

As sustainability is “here to stay” and, in many countries, is a quite a new discipline, the experience acquired as a “sustainable manager” can also give a unique opportunity not only to contribute to the corporate strategy but also to influence it.

[1] “The Year in CSR: The Four Trends of 2010”

[2]  “A New Era of Sustainability: UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study 2010″ 

[3] “4 Steps to Go Green Like eBay – Starting With Employees”  

 [4] For a detailed analysis of employee’s engagement refer to the reference book CSR for HR by Elaine Cohen

[5] In this blog post the company’s middle management team comprises of managers who head specific departments (such as accounting, marketing, production) or business units, or who serve as project managers in flat organizations. (HBR) Middle Management Excellence

[6]  Andersson, Lynne, Shivarajan, Sridevi & Blau, Gary. (2005). Enacting Ecological Sustainability in the MNC: A Test of an Adapted Value-Belief-Norm Framework. Journal of Business Ethics. 59, 295-305.


Ann Charles, @annmcharles on Twitter, Founder of BRANDfog, a company that offers Social Media & CSR Strategy for CEOs has posted, few days ago, on the Fast Company website, a wonderful Christmas gift for the CSR Community:  the BRANDfog’s 2010 CSRTree, an ” homage to those tireless voices”, “designed to recognize some of the great thought leaders in Corporate Social Responsibility for 2010.”

I’m very honoured to appear on the Tree, with my twitter account @CarbonImpact, that I’ve been using for some time now to tweet, and  retweet, articles, blog posts, comments or analysis that I thought were interesting for the CSR & Sustainability community or for anybody interested in those topics. I’ve met wonderful people on Twitter this year, read brilliant pieces, participated to intense debates, attended awesome virtual events, particularly those organized by Susan McPherson, @susanmcp1, the passionate senior Vice President at Fenton, and posted few comments and opinions myself. More importantly, I’ve definitely developed my knowledge and skills of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, thanks to incredibly knowledgeable experts such as Julie Urlaub, @TaigaCompany, Elaine Cohen, @ElaineCohen, Aman Singh, @VaultCSR, Dave Meyer, @DRMeyer1 and all the Thought-Leaders who appear on Ann’s Tree. Thanks to them, I’m a better sustainability and CSR professional, and, because our shared passion strengthen my core values, I believe that I’m also a better person.

So, to all of you, a warm Thank You and a very Happy CSRhristmas

PS: Ann Charles is also the Founder of the Great Leaders Conference, Changing the culture of Leadership in a Web 2.0 World, that will take place next year, on April 28-29 in NYC and will be a major event to promote CSR and Sustainability.

A Sustainable Annual Report…on your iPad!

On December 17th, Pernod Ricard  (Euronext: RI),  a French company that produces distilled beverages and is a world leader in the Premium segment as well as a co-leader in Wines & Spirits, released its 2009/2010 annual report..through an iPad application

Pernod Ricard is active in 70 countries, employs 18000 employees and its Net Sales amounted to € 7.081 m over the 2009/2010 period.

As far as I know, this initiative is one of the first in its category, together with the japanese company Daiwa House Industry’s 2010 report, also available as an iPad application

 The Pernod Ricard app has definitely a nice design, with a series of beautiful pictures by the contemporary Argentinian photographer Marcos Lopez. Navigation is easy, both through the iPad specific interface, which offers a condensed version of the report, and as well as in the full pdf version available within the same application (the Book icon in the menu bar).

The report itself is divided in 4 main categories: 

“BRAND Creators” that explains the marketing, innovation and brand acquisitions strategy of the group.

“A World of Creators” that describes the geographical growth strategy and specific actions of the Group in the 70 countries where it operates.

“Committed Creators” that  includes the Group’s Social and Environmental Responsibility Commitments, which are well documented and detailed, presented through objective data and description of the actions taken to meet the commitments.

“Creators of Value” with a Financial Overview and specific information for shareholders.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The “Committed Creators” chapter is  obviously the part that caught my attention the most. As a member of the UN Global Compact, Pernod Ricard is committed to supporting and advancing the principles of the United Nations Global Compact.

The section is articulated around 4 main areas: Human Resources, Environment, Responsible Drinking and Cultural & Social Solidarity Initiatives.

For each area, specific indicators and activities are described, such as the fact that 42% of outside recruits were women (+3% over 2008/2009), that 19000 copies of the brochure “Alcohol: I’m in control – Become an ambassador for responsible drinking” were distributed within the group in 2010, the 82% of solid waste recycled between 2008/2009 and 2009/2010, the water consumption savings in the countries were resources are limited, or the fact that 90% of the production sites calculated their carbon footprint. The exposure given to the photographer Marcos Lopez, to illustrate the Group’s new tagline  “Créateurs de Convivialité”, as well as other cultural initiative, with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example, are also described in the report.

What I liked the most actually, was the interview of the  “Créateurs de Convivialité”, employees and managers of the Group, sharing their vision, achievements and activities on the main topics of the report. This “human perspective” in the report, beautifully illustrated by the above mentioned photographer, gives a nice and personal touch to the report, with its elegant photo gallery of the employees interviewed in the report.

Finally, there’s a section with the short video made by Spike Jonze for the Absolute vodka brand.

In 2010, many companies have displayed creative ways to present their annual, Corporate social Responsibility or sustainability reports, through their corporate or specific, and sometimes interactive, websites, and it’s more than likely that this trend will go on in the coming years. The iPad offers a great interface for this type of initiatives, giving a very positive user experience. Pernod Ricard has done a great job, even though it leverages mostly the “visual” aspects of the media. Other capabilities like audio or the incorporation of social media features could add even more value to the experience. Allowing viewers to leave comments and suggestions, “like”, or “dislike” for that matter, a specific topic, share pictures or textual contents through e-mail or twitter would be nice options to make available for the next release.

Remember…: Drink – and Act – Responsibly!

The Pernod Ricard Annual Report App is available, free of charge, through iTunes:

Credits: Pernod Ricard Annual Report iPad Application

Photos: Marcos Lopez-Art Affaires

Book Review : CSR for HR

Book review: CSR for HR by Elaine Cohen.

I’ve been following Elaine’s work for a while, mostly through her Twitter account – @ElaineCohen – and by attending a couple of virtual events on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) where she was a speaker. So when her book was recently published I didn’t miss the opportunity to read it. Full disclosure: I was one of the lucky winners of the CSRwire Book Giveaway last month. I’m a follower of their @csrwire Twitter account, and I received a copy of Elaine’s book signed by the Author.

CSR for HR is a very meaningful book by a knowledgable author whose effective storytelling provides the compelling evidence that “a partnership” – between HR and CSR – is needed to advance “responsible business practices“.

Although the Author has included few fictional characters to support her point, the situations, comments and people described in the book are absolutely realistic and will sound familiar to most of the readers. Along with those fictional characters, Elaine Cohen mentions and quotes some of the most well-known experts working in the fields of HR, CSR and Sustainability such as Julie Urlaub, Founder and Managing Partner at Taiga Company, Chris Jarvis from Realized Worth or Cathy Joseph. Finally, it’s nice to see that the Author has managed to stay away from any technical jargon and smartly uses humor and anecdotes all along the narrative.

The main character of the book, Sharon Black, is a young HR Director at a medium-sized software company in the UK. During a flight to the USA, where she’s going to attend a Learning & Development conference, Sharon meets Arena, a senior HR professional, on her way to the same conference, who engages her in a passionate conversation about CSR and Sustainability. Arena explains to Sharon, new to those concepts, why HR professionals’s involvement is not only important but also essential to develop a successful sustainability strategy and how HR people can elaborate and drive CSR actions that deliver both business gain as well as positive social and environmental impact.

Sharon, fascinated by Arena’s demonstration, quickly realizes that this meeting is one of those life-changing events. During the following weeks, we follow Sharon as she begins her professional and personal journey to CSR, becoming, according to her own words, a “CSR evangelist“. The book, as the author puts it, is a “wake up call” for the HR profession and a toolkit to help members of that profession becoming Corporate Social Human Resources (CSHR) Manager.
It’s also a perfect introduction to CSR and sustainability for anyone willing to develop their understanding of those concepts through concrete examples and support the advance of “responsible business practices”. However, for HR professionals, Elaine’s book is much more than an introduction: it’s a practical guide for designing and conducting specific actions that aim to build CSR credibility, which is, as the book points out, “dependent on delivery and not on rhetoric.”

The book describes a comprehensive range of actions that HR professionals can take to deliver sound CSR results, from Ethics, Human Rights, Employee engagement and reward to Green Teams and Volunteering Programs. For each of those topics, the Author offers real life examples, thoroughly presented, including useful facts and links for who’d like to get into further details. But the book should not be seen as a manual or a recipe book only. It highlights, in my opinion, something critical: what is essential is the process of building a sustainability strategy and defining the CSR activities that support it. Simply copying what others are doing is not an option, for the strategy, to be successful, must be authentic, not driven by PR considerations and therefore developed by each company based on their particular internal and external situations.

However, there’s no need to “reinvent the wheel”, as the achievements of the pioneers and practitioners in this field constitute a solid set of references for HR professionals who understand that, not only CSR is “here to stay”, but is an essential part of their job. The Author demonstrates through the book that cooperation and teamwork, both internal and external, are key in order to build a successful CSR roadmap and that what matters, as Arena tells Sharon, are “small steps and small wins“.

Yesterday I met up with my friend Victoria, a young and talented HR manager, working with a multinational IT company and I asked her what she knew about Corporate Social Responsibility and if it was part of her role and responsibilities. She, almost literally, answered: “I have to admit that I don’t know what corporate social responsibility involves. I’m not sure why it’s important. ” We enjoyed our Cookie Dough ice cream, chatting about other topics, before having a walk along the sea in Barcelona. When I went back home I ordered a copy of HR for CSR. It will be the perfect Christmas gift for Victoria and, hopefully, the beginning of a great journey!

CSR for HR can be ordered at :