What do Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Campbell Soup, and Adobe all have in common? They are great examples of sustainable companies. The word “sustainable” has been a buzzword of late, which can seem slightly humorous as the concept is as old as creation. At its root, the word means “able to last for a long time.” Why do these organizations fit the bill? Their mission statements show that they are aware of the present and long-term impact of their actions,products, or services. In a sustainable organization, all actions support the healthy growth of both internal and external systems. Employees of a sustainable organization have a deep understanding how the world around them is affected by their work.

Setting the Sustainable Tone

Outside of the natural world, sustainability doesn’t just happen. Sustainable leaders lead the charge. They understand the relationship between cause and effect, possess a “big picture” mindset, and are always looking for connections and patterns. The sustainable leader is concerned with “why” things occur, testing assumptions while placing more emphasis on synthesis versus analysis. The sustainable leader focuses on asking deep, insightful questions, looking for leverage in the system.

There are three main principles that define a sustainable leader:

  • The sustainable leader has a consistent long-term mission which incorporates all stakeholders’ interests inside and outside the organization in positive ways.
  • The sustainable leader is self-aware, aligning his or her purpose, values, and behavior in a transparent way.
  • The sustainable leader has a deep understanding of systems and the relationship between all parts in the system.

What is a Sustainable HR leader?

Within human resources, the sustainable leader:

  • Is focused on aligning a common vision that connects people in the organization.
  • Ensures that organizational values and behaviors align, while providing the glue between senior leadership and the people doing the work.
  • Ensures that all people-related processes work in harmony, for example, in the organizational hiring practices, performance feedback, development, and compensation approaches.
  • Encourages collaboration.

An example of a non-sustainable system is one which promotes collaboration but includes a rigid annual performance-review process that places people in competition for the top awards.

Steps to Sustainability for the HR leader

First and foremost, the company culture must be open, transparent,and positive. Including all members in the planning and goal-setting process aids in this effort.In order for the culture to be open, the organizational vision, mission, values, and expected behaviors must be aligned and well communicated.

The work of a sustainable HR leader involves developing collaborative processes which encourage creativity, risk taking, and positive relationships at work which build on teamwork instead of competition. Placing the emphasis on partnership versus people penalties and related punitive processes meant to control and enforce compliance is key. People should be supported and encouraged to work in ways which fit them best without the promise of rewards or threat of punishment.

How Companies — and Actually Everyone — Profit from Sustainability

The argument for such an approach is apparent in its benefits. The company has a positive brand, and people feel good about where they work. There are positive working relationships and work is productive and supports both internal and external environmental systems. More people who work in a sustainable organization tend to find joy in their work, and, as a result, they are more productive.

For customers, the sustainable organization provides better products and services. Customers, in turn, feel good about the brand and, thus, buy more services and products.Society benefits directly and indirectly through better living conditions, as a result of organizational activity which strives to ensure a positive environmental footprint.

Craig Nathanson


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