By Ezequiel (Zeke) Hart, Director, Anthesis Consulting
As the sophistication and profile of public sustainability goals have steadily risen over the past two decades, the goal-setting process has become increasingly daunting for corporate sustainability teams. Sustainability professionals face the prospect of asking their leadership teams to approve multiple targets that extend well beyond the company’s strategic planning time horizon, have a vague or undefined ROI, require multifunctional collaboration, and may lack a clear path to achievement.
Given this reality, many focus on quickly and efficiently developing a set of goals, often through some combination of external benchmarking analysis and internal negotiation. We recommend that you resist the understandable impulse to take this approach, and instead embrace the strategic and value-creating opportunities that a thorough goal-setting process can offer. We’ve found in our work with clients that the process of setting goals can be incredibly valuable for companies. It is arguably the prime opportunity to (1) clarify and (re)assert the relationships between sustainability and business success; and (2) educate, engage, and expand support for your sustainability strategy and vision. Depending on the timeline of your goals, it may only happen every five or even ten years, so it’s worth the time and effort to get right.
Below are four recommendations to keep in mind as you design your goal-setting process. Note that they are overlapping and interrelated.
- Update and refine your full sustainability strategy
Setting goals should be done soon after or in parallel with an update of your sustainability strategy. After all, while some of the goals you set may be driven by competitive or stakeholder pressure, most should be informed primarily by your strategic priorities. Before defining your goals, take stock of where you stand on current and emerging issues and best practices, gather the views of internal and external stakeholders, update your materiality assessment, and (re)define your strategic objectives and focus areas.
- Consider the impact of environmental and social trends on your company’s business strategy and vision
Many companies have a strategic planning process that looks out just three to five years and doesn’t address longer term strategic issues. The need to set sustainability goals can provide companies with a justification and a platform to consider how they may need to evolve for continued success in ten or twenty years.
As an example, a recent goal-setting project achieved much greater business relevance by incorporating a workshop in which executives from a variety of functions and business units considered the implications to the company of long-term trends such as climate change, resource scarcity and the circular economy movement, automation and artificial intelligence, and an increasingly diverse workforce and customer base. By not focusing explicitly on sustainability and goal-setting, the workshop generated a newfound appreciation among participants of the importance of environmental and social trends to the future success of the company. In addition, their insights helped the sustainability team better articulate the business value of sustainability goals.
- Engage a broad set of internal stakeholders
Take advantage of the goal-setting process to educate and hear from a variety of internal stakeholders—particularly senior leaders and those who will ultimately be involved in achieving the goals. Consider a combination of approaches, from face-to-face interviews and in-person workshops to webinars and online surveys.
The goal-setting process can be a great opportunity for the sustainability team to get the attention and engagement of the senior leadership team. Through briefings and interviews with senior executives, the sustainability team can start a two-way conversation about environmental and social issues. Seek to educate the executives on the essential context, such as corporate sustainability best practices and long-term trends, while soliciting guidance and ideas for business-relevant goals.
Goal idea-generation workshops can be a great way to build alignment and a feeling of ownership among the managers and subject-matter specialists across the organization whose support and involvement will be critical to achieving the goals. For example, several in-person and remote workshops can engage and educate dozens of participants from a variety of functions and geographies, and generate hundreds of ideas for sustainability goals. Consider an understanding of where there is consensus, debate, and passion about specific sustainability issues.
- Seek ambitious goals on topics where change really matters
Some sustainability leaders argue that “if you know how you will meet a goal, it’s not ambitious enough.” At many companies, however, pushing for ambitious, transformational goals can feel like swimming against the tide. There are many good arguments for setting “realistic” targets that only require incremental change while meeting minimum stakeholder expectations, and it will likely make sense to take that route for some of your goals. But on topics critical to business success, advocate for breakthrough and even transformational changes, trusting continued progress, innovation, and ingenuity will make the goal achievable by the time it is due.
Following these recommendations takes time and careful planning to get right – so don’t wait until the last minute! By approaching the goal-setting process as an opportunity to engage internal stakeholders and better define the role of sustainability in the future success of the company, you can maximize business value while generating a strong set of goals.
Would you like to learn more about this topic, and hear from two CEF members? Register for the upcoming webinar, Leading a successful sustainability goal-setting process, which will feature International Paper and Marriott. Please see below for more details.
Webinar: Leading a successful sustainability goal-setting process
As the end of the decade nears, many companies are checking off their 2020 goals and are working on the next round of targets for 2025 and beyond. In this webinar, we will discuss how to lead a successful process that will result in motivating, empowering, and impactful goals. We are delighted to present a compelling panel of sustainability leaders who will share their perspectives on how to run an effective goal-setting process.
Moderator: George Favaloro, Anthesis Executive Director
This webinar will explore panelist perspectives on:
Places are limited, so be sure to reserve your spot today.
Ezequiel (Zeke) Hart, Director, Anthesis Consulting
Ezequiel Hart is a Director at Anthesis Consulting Group, where he is a sustainability strategy specialist. Building on experience in management and economic consulting, Zeke has spent more than ten years helping senior executives to develop and implement sustainability and energy strategies that create business value. Prior to Anthesis, he was a sustainability services director at PwC. Zeke holds degrees from the Tuck School at Dartmouth, Tufts’ Fletcher School, and Haverford College. He lives near Boston, MA with his wife and two children.