There is a growing need for sustainability teams that can execute complex decarbonization strategies and it is presenting a unique challenge to organizations. These teams are tasked with addressing the environmental and social impacts of their organization's operations and value chain. However, driving the organizational change necessary to address these impacts is difficult particularly when established corporate structures and ways of working were not built with sustainability in mind.
For these teams to be successful, it is not enough for them to simply exist within an organization. The sustainability teams must work closely with each business unit and facilitate the adoption of a new organizational mindset to be truly effective. But building teams that can drive momentum behind a mindset shift is no simple process. It takes more than just a few peripheral changes to a legacy organizational structure. Creating an effective mindset shift requires a deep cultural change in how organizations are approaching sustainability.
Our Net Zero 2023 Report indicates that organizations are taking a variety of approaches to building sustainability teams. The research shows that 42% of organizations have adopted a centralized approach to decarbonization that includes a dedicated global team that spearheads execution efforts across the entire organization. The remaining 58% of organizations execute their initiatives from a functional, facility, or site level.
Organizations may gravitate towards one of these structures to quickly meet decarbonization needs but sustainability must be woven into the fabric of the entire organization to be truly impactful. Building a sustainability team that’s set up for long-term success requires an understanding of the different structures available and the core attributes that all successful sustainability teams embody.
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While there are a handful of different approaches that organizations can take when building sustainability teams, they are often differentiated by what drives the momentum for change. Top-down or centralized teams are typically led by senior executives and rely on centralized decision-making to drive sustainability initiatives across the organization. These teams have the advantage of being able to implement sweeping changes quickly, but they may struggle to garner buy-in from employees and may overlook key insights from front-line workers.
Bottom-up teams, on the other hand, are typically made up of employees at the facility or site level of the organization who work together to identify and implement sustainability initiatives. These teams have the advantage of being able to tap into a wide range of perspectives and experiences and are often more effective at driving behavior change among employees. However, bottom-up teams may lack the authority or resources to implement large-scale changes and may struggle to gain the attention and support of senior executives.
In addition to these structures, another model that sustainability teams may utilize is the functional team. This includes functional leaders who are responsible for coordinating and driving execution within the areas of the organization for which they are accountable. While this approach gives the responsibility of driving decarbonization to a leader that is closer to the team, functional leaders can lack the authority to allocate resources or mobilize large groups of employees.
Ultimately, the best approach to team structure will depend on the specific needs and context of the organization and may involve a combination of these strategies.
The inputs that can influence the structure of a sustainability team are just as diverse as the different structures that such a team can adopt. These inputs can vary from conscious choices that the organization makes to unconscious influences from the surrounding environment. Having an awareness of some of the key contributing factors that shape sustainability team structures can help organizations ensure that their team is well-suited to address the specific sustainability challenges it faces.
The maturity of an organization has a significant impact on the structure of its sustainability team. A less mature organization may have a smaller and more centralized sustainability team, as the focus may be on establishing a baseline guiding sustainability strategy and building internal support for sustainability initiatives. As the organization matures, the team may become more decentralized, with individuals or teams in different departments taking on sustainability responsibilities.
Organizations that are facing external demands, such as compliance with regulations or pressure from stakeholders, may find legal and social obligations a driver for implementing a sustainability team. While all organizations’ sustainability efforts are shaped by obligation to some extent, those that see it as the main driver need to be mindful of not performing a box-ticking exercise with sustainability.
If an organization's core values prioritize sustainability and environmental stewardship, the sustainability team may have a more prominent and influential role within the organization. The team may be given greater resources and more decision-making authority, with sustainability initiatives being integrated into the organization's strategic planning and decision-making processes. In contrast, if an organization's core values do not prioritize sustainability, the sustainability team may face resistance from other departments or even from senior leadership, making it more challenging to achieve sustainability goals.
At first glance, it can seem like the theme of building an effective sustainability team is, ‘it depends’. But the good news is there are key traits that successful sustainability teams have in common across all sectors and regions. First, It is important to establish a governance model that can provide the time, people, and finances needed to cultivate these traits. These resources are critical levers in establishing and maintaining a successful decarbonization transformation.
An essential component of a thriving sustainability team is strong leadership. A well-resourced leader with expertise in sustainability is necessary to provide the team with clear strategy and direction, as well as executive-level support. This leadership is crucial in mitigating common issues such as lack of accountability, disjointed communication, and isolated sustainability efforts that can undermine the success of sustainability teams. However, strong leadership does not necessarily mean that sustainability efforts have to be top-down or centralized, it just ensures that there is a single point of contact that is responsible for keeping the big picture in view.
While strong leadership is foundational, sustainability teams that are able to successfully tackle organization-wide issues also have a track record of thoughtful recruitment and hiring. This includes working with Human Resources to define skills and expertise in candidates both inside and outside the sustainability team. For example, procurement is thinking about supply chain issues, operations is checking for compressed air leaks, Human Resources is thinking about how to retain people that care about sustainability, and so on. These teams work to strike a balance between hiring strong executors and strong knowledge holders and they accept that you can’t fill all the needs of a sustainability team with one person.
Getting to the point where sustainability has a front seat in the recruiting process may not be an option or near-term goal for some organizations. If the resource and time-intensive pursuit of building an effective internal sustainability team doesn’t align with business and decarbonization goals, organizations can partner with decarbonization experts that can advise on strategy and execute implementation.
To meet an organization's decarbonization needs, it is crucial to establish a competent sustainability team that can achieve urgent decarbonization objectives, garner executive leadership support, and promote organization-wide prioritization of decarbonization. Whether the team is formed through a top-down, bottom-up, or external expert partnership approach, building an effective sustainability team is essential for meeting current decarbonization goals and preparing for future sustainability requirements.
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