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.