The changing role of the CR practitioner: how getting internal buy-in has become a critical part of the job

A recent Bain & Company report found that only 2% of sustainability change programmes achieved or exceeded the expectations of the project and 27% of those surveyed highlighted getting senior leadership support as being the greatest factor in achieving success.

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It’s also an often-undervalued skill when it comes to delivering brand purpose initiatives in complex organisations. In many ways, CR and sustainability is a nascent discipline and practitioners have been understandably focused on getting to the right answer. But this focus can come at the expense of thinking about how to ensure the strategy actually gets implemented.

Creating a buy-in strategy is as important as developing an amazing idea. No matter how great it is, there are plenty of barriers to stop it happening. In fact, at Given, we think successful implementation in CR and sustainability is 10% great idea, 40% great plan and 50% internal buy-in.

That’s why, as part of our events programme, ‘the Given purpose series’, we recently brought together industry experts to discuss their experiences of securing buy-in for purpose-led initiatives in complex organisations. Speaking at our event was Barbara Ryl, global brand manager at Unilever; David Schofield, group director of CR at Aviva; and David Croft, global sustainability director at Diageo.

The challenge

First, we discussed the challenge and the group identified four barriers to getting the wider business to engage more concretely in brand purpose:

The language barrier: The plethora of sustainability terminology means that it can be challenging to create a uniform or accepted approach

The results barrier: Measurement in sustainability has become a lot more thorough, but it’s not a core business metric and only rarely connected to commercial targets

The status barrier: A perception that unless you work for an iconic purpose brand like The Body Shop or Ben & Jerry’s, your purpose is unlikely to have a seat at the top table – and whose responsibility is it anyway?

The confidence barrier: Perhaps due to the previous three barriers, CR and sustainability teams don’t always have the confidence or permission to push the business to create change

The opportunity

The panel also discussed the opportunity where we explored who we need to engage and how to engage them. Some clear themes emerged…

1) Treat brand purpose projects more like innovation than CR initiatives. If we want purposeful initiatives to be taken seriously, we have to think like innovators. This means having a clear and compelling business plan for every sustainability or purpose idea.

The first step is to integrate purpose with the business’s strategic agenda and the group discussed some tactics for doing this – it involved surfing, poking and being agile. Be prepared to surf someone else’s wave to elevate your project, poke around by approaching tricky business issues head on and finally, be agile, recognising that the CFO will sometimes want a human story and the Creative Director will ask you for the business case.

2) Move beyond risk mitigation and focus on the customer. In many organisations, CR and sustainability will not create value for the organisation beyond managing risk and reputation because it’s not core to the brand. Aligning the benefits of your sustainability programme to a customer need creates urgency for the business. And customers are much harder to argue with than anyone else in the business.

At Given, we use co-creation to bring customers into the process and create a platform for getting internal engagement. Bringing together multiple stakeholder groups, from customers to employees and experts, and also bringing in the people that need to say yes to and help you deliver your project, ensures they’ve been a part of solving the business challenge, which means not only do you get valuable insights and ideas but you get critical internal buy-in too.

3) Know your audience – who to engage with, with what message and when. Getting sustainability ideas through complex businesses requires a ‘comms plan’. This often requires sustainability professionals to ‘get political’ by building relationships with the people you need to influence, developing allies in different departments and then identifying the ‘enablers’ for your idea. Storytelling is a critical element of getting buy-in; facts and figures convince the business, but stories build belief.

4) Build your resilience – and help your team to do the same. To create a genuinely purpose-led organisation, it needs to live everywhere, not just with the CR team. The CR team needs to be the engine of change; creating new networks into the business and building alliances with other teams. They also need to impart the skills and signature processes they have to other people within the organisation so that the whole company can become change-makers.

Measurement is a key part of building resilience too. It’s about creating a way of measuring your initiative that aligns to other business metrics to show long-term social, environmental and business impact.

Getting buy-in for sustainability and purpose is an emerging capability for CR practitioners. It’s a capability that is needed to ensure ideas actually happen and make a difference for the business, and – because this is about sustainability – for the world. It was a concluding thought at the end of our debate that successful buy-in for sustainability and purpose initiatives should result in a truly purposeful organisation, which essentially makes us as CR and sustainability practitioners redundant.

While people in CR and sustainability have talked about this idea for many years, it seems that building our understanding of how to get buy-in for purpose is the first steps towards actually making this happen. 

edie’s 30-minute masterclass on achieving business buy-in for sustainability

For anyone looking to refine their skills in this area, watch my free, 30-minute masterclass on edie. In the masterclass, I discuss how to use co-creation to develop new sustainability ideas and strategies; how to run workshops that deliver the best ideas; and three winning strategies for getting buy-in for your ideas.

Click this link to to watch the masterclass for free.

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