Engaging Your Board on Sustainability: Advice for (And From) Senior Sustainability Leaders

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Engaging your Board on sustainability is crucial. We asked sustainability leaders from our corporate peer group to share their advice for effective Board engagement. Here’s what they told us:

Get to know your Board

You may have a strong sense of what you think the Board needs to know when it comes to sustainability. The question is, how well do you know them and their individual needs?

Remember that your board includes executive team members. There shouldn’t be any surprises for them. Your independent directors will expect that your CEO, CFO, and other executives will be well informed. Be sure that anything you intend to present has been properly socialised internally and ask for their input on how to frame key messages for the Board.

Try to learn as much as you can about each director. Do you know their backgrounds and have a sense of their expertise and familiarity with sustainability concepts? Remember that your corporate secretary can be an important ally as you get to know the Board.

Over time, you’ll also build your own relationships. Several of the leaders we spoke with advised that you make good use of the white space and any social events. These are your opportunities to develop a more personal relationship, understand their perspectives, questions, concerns, and suggestions. Use the time to listen, not to land things.

Provide context

To provide effective oversight of sustainability, boards need the full picture. Companies operate within broader systems and at any given moment, there are potentially game-changing events happening that could have an impact, positive or negative, on the business. Your job is to keep your board up to date and address any uncertainty that the current context presents. Have conditions changed? Are there new trends, evolving expectations, or new information about the business or the environmental or social systems around you that they should be aware of? As a business, are we doing what we said we would do? Are there reasons why we may need to change our approach? If so, what change is required, why, and what are the potential implications?

Be clear on your objectives and your ask

Boards are notoriously strapped for time, so you need to make every minute with them count. Remember that one-way updates are for board packs. How can you leverage this opportunity for a conversation? Is this about socialising and exploring a new issue or new direction, providing some insight or education on an emerging trend or issue, better understanding their needs, or providing reassurance that all is well?

You need to skillfully bridge two audiences – those in the room that need an approachable high-level understanding and those that care deeply about the details. So, make sure that your slides and/or any backgrounders include a high-level summary with key points, and you’ll also want to signal that deeper analysis and data is there for those who need or want it.

And don’t forget about your directional ask. Are you asking for guidance or input? Are you seeking final sign-off on a policy or position statement? Even if this really is simply an update on performance, you should still be clear about what role you are asking them to play in the process.

Tell stories and then back them up with data

Our research shows that stories are sticky. Find some key moments to share stories that paint a picture of emerging leadership or that benchmark your performance, that demonstrate internal commitment, or illustrate risks avoided or a return on investment. Sharing stories that show how key stakeholders like customers, communities, or even investors see your company (both positively and negatively) can be invaluable.

Stories can be a compelling way to illustrate a point and can be a catalyst for action, but make sure you have any supporting data at hand. You need to tie key stories back to how sustainability progress is creating value and/or what further investment will be required in the future. It is also important to demonstrate that company resources are being used wisely.

Help to close the knowledge gap

There is an increasing need for sustainability competency in the boardroom. Directors that are well informed are in a stronger position to provide meaningful sustainability oversight. Consider using your time with the Board to help them deepen their understanding of emerging sustainability issues and their potential impacts on the business, the company’s impacts on the environment and society, and its potential for broader systems influence, along with the changing regulatory landscape and stakeholder expectations.

For some topics, you may want to consider inviting an external expert. Whether it is providing a sense of emerging expectations, benchmarking leading practice, or explaining emerging concepts in a safe, approachable way, a well-chosen external expert can bring a new perspective and reinvigorate your discussions around sustainability. A key tactic is to ensure that your speaker concludes with practical action that individual directors can take, such as providing a list of key questions that directors can ask.

Be well prepared

With packed agendas, there is no time to spare. Ensure that you get the most of your time by laying the groundwork ahead of time. If you have a cross-functional sustainability steering committee, you can draw on their input to help prepare, build, and structure your presentation. This will help ensure that what you are presenting is aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the business. Touch base with other executives and in some cases, members of the Board’s sustainability sub-committee.

Invest in creating a compelling backgrounder that is well structured and easy to skim. Keep it short and push any supporting data and analysis into Appendices. Any graphs or figures should have a short paragraph that explains key findings and implications so that they don’t become a point of debate.

Be authentic

Lastly, remember that each session is an opportunity to build trust and credibility with your board. Be genuine, be curious, and be excited about the work. You want to impart a sense of confidence in the direction that you and the business are taking towards meeting its sustainability goals. The energy you convey is the same energy they will welcome you with when you return.

We hope these insights will help you to engage with your board more effectively. If you have ideas to share or require any more specific support, be sure to get in touch.

Image by Bonnie Taylor Barry on Shutterstock.