The corporate sustainability conversation is changing, silently but powerfully.
The prevailing narrative emphasizes strategies aligned with ESG reporting and achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Corporate action in these areas is no longer a nice-to-have. Employees, customers, investors and business partners increasingly expect companies to place sustainability at the core of their business.
However, an emerging discourse is uncovering a new element of the corporate sustainability conversation: the skills, culture and mindsets required to operate inside sustainable companies. Three examples come to mind.
First, Boehringer Ingelheim, a German healthcare company with 53,000 employees, recently appointed a Head of Sustainability & Culture. “We needed to ask ourselves, what skills and culture are required as part of this deeper commitment to take responsibility for sustainable communities and our planet?” explains Tanja Vermeer, Senior Global HR People Growth Manager.
Second, Kersia, a French-based global leader in the hygiene space with 2,200 employees, redesigned its leadership development strategy to ensure its employees are “actors of change rather than undergoing change”, as explained by Guillaume Tanter, Global Head of HR.
Then, there’s IKEA, which is developing new competencies among its co-workers to meet the company’s new reality. “We increasingly see we are part of a system. As such, we know that, if we work on ourselves, we will create an impact on the system,” explains Tina Molund, Co-worker Engagement Lead.
A historical perspective: the industrial, digital and social revolutions
With every major societal shift, we have witnessed a corresponding shift in demand for skills.
During the Industrial Revolution, we mastered repetition, understanding rules and following hierarchy.
“We needed to ask ourselves, what skills and culture are required as part of this deeper commitment to take responsibility for sustainable communities and our planet?” – Tanja Vermeer
As we embarked on the Digital Revolution, these skills no longer served us and were replaced with the ability to work in fast-paced environments, execute projects, excel in digital literacy and master complexity.
And as we enter the Social Revolution – described as a time when today’s societal problems are too global, complex and fast-changing for any individual or organization to solve alone – it will require us to adjust yet again.
Critical skills required for companies to meet their sustainability obligations
While various frameworks have emerged, the spirit of these skills remains the same: the focus on inner work (such as self-awareness), how we treat others (embodied by traits such as empathy and seeing everyone as powerful) and adopting a can-do attitude (which is manifested by changemaking). These skills are among those that are deemed critical for navigating complex systems today.
In 2021, the Inner Development Goals conducted two surveys asking the question: “What abilities, qualities or skills do you believe are essential to develop, individually and collectively, in order to get us significantly closer to fulfilling the UN’s SDGs?” The IDG Framework emerged from these survey responses plus secondary research. It encompasses 23 core skills being adopted by organizations around the world.
“Traditionally, we create a distinction between leaders and the rest of our employees, but isn’t everyone a leader in this new system?” – Tanja Vermeer
Through its global network of over 3,500 social entrepreneurs, Ashoka has identified patterns of behavior that point to four core skills related to driving positive societal change. A free and open self-assessment tool called The Changemaker Index helps individuals appreciate and improve these core skills while enabling organizations to calculate the ‘density’ of problem-solvers among their stakeholders, including employees.
The corporate sustainability conversation doesn’t stop at developing new individual skills. It’s about changing organizational culture and shifting mental paradigms.
Five organizations came together to discuss the skills and mindset required for companies to drive a regenerative and inclusive economy. They concluded that success relies on four best practices.
1. Leverage the unique company DNA in the culture change process
For IKEA, this means valuing its entrepreneurial and decentralized way of working. “These new skills survived and scaled internally because, historically, IKEA built a culture of entrepreneurs,” IKEA’s Molund explains.
Building on Leitbild – its 130-plus years of responsibility for communities – Boehringer Ingelheim’s sustainability journey was embedded into core business and mandated by the board.
“These new skills survived and scaled internally because, historically, IKEA built a culture of entrepreneurs.” – Tina Molund
As for Kersia, the company embraced its investor-driven culture by adopting KPIs to show how talent and culture contribute to a “triple-bottom line”.
2. Link the change process to inspiration and passion
There’s an element of sustainability work that can’t be implemented from the top, but rather requires organic inspiration and a genuine desire, including from teams and individuals that may never be officially engaged in devising or administering sustainability strategy.
“It’s difficult to build these skills from the top. They are built from a passion and interest that emerges from the system. It’s about inspiring and influencing, not implementing.” – Tina Molund
“It’s difficult to build these skills from the top. They are built from a passion and interest that emerges from the system. It’s about inspiring and influencing, not implementing,” Molund explains.
“Traditionally, we create a distinction between leaders and the rest of our employees, but isn’t everyone a leader in this new system?” Vermeer from Boehringer Ingelheim adds.
Creating a culture where everyone feels powerful enough to contribute requires building internal sandboxes where employees’ ideas and solutions can surface, and which may have been unthinkable in the traditional confines of executive meetings and strategy sessions.
3. Develop new training and learning models with social entrepreneurs
Boehringer Ingelheim, Kersia and IKEA offer experiential learning opportunities based on engaging employees with social entrepreneurs either in virtual or physical settings.
In these spaces, employees practice “systems thinking” and begin to see the interdependence between their daily work and big societal challenges, whether it is access to health care, unsustainable food systems or inadequate housing markets.
These spaces enable peer learning, cross-mentoring and the questioning of prevailing mental paradigms.
4. Think long-term and embed sustainability skills into business processes
All three companies are incorporating sustainability measurements and the development of new skills into annual performance review processes.
This includes asking teams to define sustainability KPIs, embedding sustainability thinking into leadership programs and redefining leadership skills to drive the future success of the company while creating more societal impact.
Boehringer Ingelheim, Kersia and IKEA agree that measuring the impact of culture change on business processes is complex. They recognize the important role of internal storytelling to reinforce positive employee behavior, noting that employees are the biggest drivers of sustainability strategy.
“In a continuously changing environment, it’s critical to help people reinvent themselves and not reproduce the systems which aren’t adapted to today’s needs.” – Guillaume Tanter
The three companies are expanding the narrative around corporate sustainability. They recognize their employees as a massive source of motivation, inspiration and agents of change in an ongoing journey.
As Molund puts it, “IKEA co-workers are the biggest enablers of our sustainability strategy”.
Tanter from Kersia agrees. “In a continuously changing environment, it’s critical to help people reinvent themselves and not reproduce the systems which aren’t adapted to today’s needs,” he adds.
And Vermeer from Boehringer Ingelheim reinforces the need for “new thinking and a new language around leadership and skills development, so people who aren’t working daily on these topics can easily translate and apply them to core business”.
Authored by members of Ashoka’s Changemaker Companies team: Sarah Jefferson, Romina Carrillo and Olivier Fruchaud, with contributions from Tanya Vermeer, Senior Global HR People Growth Manager, Boehringer Ingelheim; Tina Molund, Head of Coworker Engagement, IKEA Social Entrepreneurship; Guillaume Tanter, Global Head of HR, Kersia; Kristian Stålne, Former Research Lead, Inner Development Goals; research and knowledge capture by Kearney