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Whether you call these sustainability steering committees, integration teams, leadership councils, or something else, having an internal, cross-functional group to support your company’s sustainability journey can be invaluable. In this blog, we share best practices and lessons learned for establishing and revitalising steering committees to ensure they are a well-functioning support for the business.
Does my company need a steering committee?
Internal steering committees can be an important support system to help guide and implement your sustainability strategy. Run well, they become an effective cross-organisational network for sharing information, building capability and gaining alignment to further your sustainability progress.
Establishing a steering committee
Defining your steering committee’s purpose
If you’re establishing a new committee, you will need to be clear what purpose it will serve. For example, it could be to:
Inform and help build capacity among influential people within the business;
Ensure sustainability work plans are well-aligned with business needs;
Identify emerging issues, their potential for impacting the business, and how the business should respond;
Identify opportunities for improving sustainability performance and collaboration;
Build consensus and support for key sustainability decisions that will impact the business; and/or
Contribute towards reporting on sustainability progress, goals, and commitments.
Once you’ve landed on an appropriate purpose for your committee, you should include it in a charter or terms of reference. You can look to Radian’s ESG Steering Committee Charter as an example.
Considering your steering committee’s composition
It is helpful to include a senior person of influence from each relevant functional area of the business and to have a sponsor from the executive leadership team. If you can get your CEO to join the committee, all the better! We’ve heard that CEOs value the forward and outward looking nature of the conversations that take place in sustainability steering committees as well as the opportunity to engage with a broader set of emerging leaders in the business.
It’s also important to ensure that there is diversity in your committee; not only is this the right thing to do, having access to different perspectives (be it gender, race, age, ethnicity, physical ability, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or other relevant factors) helps to surface bias and open up different solutions to problems, thereby improving your committee’s effectiveness.
You will also need to be strategic. While you may have people in the business that are very passionate about sustainability, they may not have enough seniority or influence to justify including them in the steering committee. In this case, consider how you could create other channels for those who want to be a champion for your company’s sustainability agenda, including how they might help to engage in the work that responds to the questions raised by the committee.
Recruiting steering committee members
Time is scarce, so when you are approaching potential members you will want to stress the benefits: helping to shape the strategy, ensuring their units’ voice is heard, and the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the business. Being on the sustainability steering committee can provide members with an opportunity to interact with other senior leaders, to build new relationships, strengthen existing relationships, collaborate on initiatives, and influence the company’s sustainability journey. These are all things that can improve their own career trajectory.
Setting a fixed term for committee membership means you’ll have new members on a regular basis, bringing with them fresh ideas and energy. But you’ll need to invest time onboarding them and you may not want certain people to step down. Another option is to have members join on an ongoing basis, only replacing them when they change role (or leave the company). Consider maintaining some key long-term roles then vary some of the participants thematically based on your strategic priorities.
Finding a time for senior leaders to meet can be challenging and their time is expensive. You’ll also need sufficient time between meetings to follow up on actions and prepare materials for future meetings. Scheduling quarterly meetings is usually appropriate, although you may wish to meet more frequently in the early days of a committee or when working towards certain objectives.
Your committee should have a chair (and vice chair or co-chair) to ensure meetings follow the agenda and to facilitate discussions. Inviting guests (internal or external) to do a deep dive on a specific topic from time-to-time can inject new ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking.
An agenda and any supporting information should be sent out in advance of the meeting so that members know what to expect and can come prepared. There should also be someone responsible for taking minutes and for any reporting expected from the committee.
That said, we have heard that one of the key outcomes of these internal committees is building out a connected network across the organisation – think of it as your own mycelium network that sustains and feeds your sustainability implementation work. That means it is important to create space for meaningful connections to form.
Revitalising your committee
From time to time, your committee may face challenges or stop being a well-functioning support for the business. Here are some key tips for revitalising your committee and improving its effectiveness.
Talk one-to-one with members: Get their perspective on what is working, what isn’t working, and how things could be improved.
Revisit the purpose: It might be time to go back to the committee’s charter or terms of reference and look at its purpose. The committee may have strayed from its purpose and need reigning in, or the original purpose may no longer be appropriate.
Review the composition: The committee might benefit from a member stepping aside, a new member being appointed, or some guests being invited to inject some new energy.
Change the frequency of meetings: Your committee might not be meeting frequently enough to maintain a sense of momentum, or conversely, it might be meeting on such a frequent basis that members struggle to attend, do any required preparation work, or follow up on their actions.
Improve members’ understanding: Committee members might benefit from additional background information before meetings, or training, or even some one-on-one chats to bring them up to speed. Be sure to explain acronyms they may not be familiar with, avoid jargon, and use meetings as an opportunity to build capacity.
We hope these practices will set you up for success. If you require any more specific support, be sure to get in touch.
While the IFC’s Focus 15: Sustainability Committees: Structure and Practices is more focused on board-level sustainability committees, it also offers useful advice for management-level committees.
There aren’t many publicly-available examples of management-level sustainability steering committee charters or terms of reference (most tend to be board-level) but you could take a look at Radian’s ESG Steering Committee Charter to see what these typically include.
Lastly, we will be releasing a guide on Supporting Internal Sustainability Committees with more detail and ideas soon. If you would like to be notified once it’s released, please sign up for our newsletter.