The Middle Management Challenge in Sustainability Progress

June 8, 2015
  • Laura Gitman portrait

    Laura Gitman

    Chief Impact Officer, BSR

The new Guardian Sustainable Business series “Business Sustainability: Tales From the Front Lines,” explores what it really takes to drive sustainability within a company. I recently had the opportunity to share my perspectives for the inaugural article, “Warts and All: The Route to Sustainability Isn’t Always Pretty,” which recognizes that sustainability work is often “fraught with obstacles, impediments, and delays.”

In the corporate sustainability community, we (rightfully) spend a lot of time sharing success stories, which helps inspire change. It was refreshing, talking with the reporter Matt Wheeland, to take the opportunity to reflect on the challenges the people who are driving that change face on a daily basis. 

No one ever said this job was easy—sustainable change is hard. And often it’s a lonely job for a small team of sustainability professionals who are constantly pushing up against colleagues in other functions or geographies. Every business is filled with people who are well-meaning but have different perspectives, experiences, and incentives.

Even when you have strong senior executive leadership and great grassroots momentum, the most fundamental change often happens when you get middle management on board, and that’s often the most challenging group. Indeed, speaking at the BSR Conference 2014, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Sir Andrew Witty noted that sustainability at his company isn’t bottom up or top down, it’s middle out.

Whenever I’m asked about careers by MBA students who are looking to get into the sustainability field, I often think about that middle management challenge. I encourage them to go into core business functions: marketing, finance, or product development. I suggest they go run a P&L. We need a cadre of business managers who understand how to integrate sustainable thinking into their core functions. And for those who are in sustainability functions, a core part of their job should also be to engage, convince, support, and motivate those managers. 

Whenever BSR works with a member company to conduct a materiality assessment or develop a sustainability strategy, we interview a large number of middle and senior management executives across the company. In doing this, we learn a lot about the corporate culture and strategic priorities, as well as key challenges to change.

Sometimes the challenge is that the manager is so focused on increasing sales or driving cost efficiencies that sustainability is seen as a distraction or burden. Other times they just don’t speak the same language—the sustainability team is talking about supply chain traceability and human rights, and the procurement team is thinking about supply chain continuity and access to raw materials.  Both sides are actually talking about the same root issues, and the solutions are often mutually beneficial, but understanding the nuances and getting these teams to communicate and develop shared goals takes time to engage and to demonstrate how the sustainability priorities support the business priorities.

At the beginning of many projects, I’ve had company leaders ask me why we need to do these interviews, and after the project is complete, many of them start to understand: It is this process of engagement that is so important to internal change management. So many people today play a role in driving sustainable change within companies, and each face their own set of challenges. I look forward to hearing more of their stories through the new Guardian series. 

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