What is missing from top level commitment?

As anyone who has tried to improve sustainability, energy efficiency or resource efficiency knows, senior management support is critical, says Martin Gibson - but it's not everything.

‘Commitment from the top’ is always in the list of critical success factors from surveys of leading initiatives. At the opposite end of the spectrum, many a manager entrusted with delivering improvement has bemoaned the lack of top management support for undermining any real progress.

For about 20 years now, I have agreed with this and I am not going to change my tune now. However, I think that the simple ‘commitment from the top’ approach is not sufficient in itself. The top level commitment must be meaningful and well communicated if it really is going to help success.

In the mid-1990’s, the UK Government ran an initiative called Making a Corporate Commitment (MACC). This was aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of some of the country’s largest companies. A Secretary of State wrote to the Chief Executives of companies in the FTSE 100 asking them to make a commitment to improving energy efficiency. At the time, the Energy Efficiency Best Practice Programme (EEBPP) was in full swing and producing good savings for many companies. Unfortunately, the EEBPP didn’t really get much board level attention; it was successful at targeting technical managers but this tended to lead to incremental changes, not systemic ones. It was felt, probably rightly, that senior level commitment might lead to more fundamental changes in approach.

Being committed also involves providing resources

Few people would now remember MACC without prompting, if they remembered it at all. It wasn’t a great success, although some aspects of it worked well. Having a minister write to chief executives did increase board interest for a little while and a number of major companies signed up to MACC. The trouble is, few of the companies used this to change how they managed energy.

I remember speaking to the environment manager of a multinational about a year after MACC was launched. He told me that he had just learnt that his chief executive had signed up to MACC six months before. I would say that he was not amused in how long it took for him to learn about it, but that would probably be wrong. He seemed to find his lack of knowledge only too predictable and had a wry smile on his face.

You’ve probably spotted by now that top level commitment doesn’t just mean the chief executive saying that they are committed to doing something! It has to be backed up by management action. This includes the boring part of reviewing the current position, planning actions, do the actions, measuring progress and then repeating the cycle. Yes – it involves embedding the commitment into management systems.

Being committed also involves providing resources. One of the early case studies on the old Envirowise program was about a chemical company that had saved money by improving resource efficiency. It had started reusing chemical containers and giving people more responsibility. The environment manager leading the initiative was given the verbal and written support of the managing director. However, when speaking about it, he would say that it took a bit longer to get the time of the people he needed to deliver the initiative.

Since the mid-1990s, things have moved on quite a bit and a lot of companies with senior management commitment have turned that into real action. This moves us on to the next part of the equation for success: communication. My earlier friend, the corporate environment manager, was pretty effective at communication but could only communicate what he knew. I think a lot more attention is paid to communication of sustainability than was the case for energy efficiency in the 1990s. The trouble now is that there is so much being communicated that the important issues can get lost.

If you are like me, you probably get over 80 emails every day. So anyone trying to communicate has a lot of competition. I do read the emails sent from the boss (usually) and feel that is probably true for most people. So, if the boss really has made a corporate commitment, perhaps one of the most important things they can do (after ensuring the management systems do what they should and providing the resources) is lend their name to important internal and external communications about sustainability. After all, it has got to be more interesting talking about sustainability than filling in all those questionnaires about corporate governance.