Getting CEO Commitment — Why is it so hard?

One of the things we are going to have to do if we are to create sustainable brands and a sustainable future is to help CEO’s and C suite leaders re-define what the good life means to them. How do we help CEO’s make forging sustainability and social good a central part of their definition of what it means to have a “good life.”

Over the past year, my colleague Andrew Winston and I have been interviewing CEO’s of major companies who have truly demonstrated a commitment to leading sustainably. Our goal was to see what we could learn about fostering CEO commitment by discovering how these leaders came to choose to make doing good a major part of their own good life.

at SB’17 Detroit, we are going to lead a session on getting CEO commitment and how each of us can influence senior leaders. We will share some of what we learned and engage session participants in a robust dialogue about how we can help move CEO’s along this path.

One of the things that I have discovered is that one of the paths to helping leaders re-define the good life is to get them think more personally. As Dolf van Den Blink, CEO of Heineken Mexico and a client of mine told me recently, “when you ask people what the purpose of the business is they immediately think in terms of profits and numbers.” When he wanted to reimagine the vision of his company towards a more holistic purpose, he began by asking his senior team to think about the purpose of their life outside of work. Most people define their personal good life in terms of family, relationships and contributing even though at work we rarely talk about those things.

Another thing I’ve discovered in coaching CEO’s tend is that being competitive and “winning” is often a big part of how those who achieve that level define the good life. Too often we think that to get executives to make sustainability core, we need to get them to stop defining a good life around competition. My own view is that rather than try to get rid of that competitive spirit we need to help them channel that desire to win towards doing good. Winning is not a bad thing if you get to win doing good. As Darren Entwistle, CEO of Canadian telecommunications giant TELUS told me, “This is not about killing the competitive spirit but about channeling it. I like winning and I like being able to say that my company has the greenest real estate platform of any company in Canada.” When Van den Blink led the team at Heineken Mexico to reimagine their purpose they landed on “winning big for a better Mexico.” This is a great example of how a good life can be defined around competing for good.

One of the other keys to gaining CEO commitment is to help them connect legacy with sustainability. There is some fascinating research being conducted on what drives stewardship behavior (making decisions based on impact for the next generation) by people like Morela Hernandez at the University of Virginia. Her research suggests that “personal legacy” is a bigger driver of sustainable thinking than is philanthropy. That is, if we can get leaders thinking about what they want their legacy to be, it is likely an even stronger motivator than doing societal good per se.

When we interviewed Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company he spoke to us in plain terms: “When your name is on the side of the building and will likely be there for years after you are gone, you tend to think differently about sustainability.”

For many years since my first book Awakening Corporate Soul, I have been asking leaders that very question: Years from now when you are no longer running this company what do you want your legacy to be? What I have discovered is that most people define the “good life” as leaving something good behind. Inevitably we have found that asking that question moves senior executives towards a different definition of what it means to lead their organizations.

We hope you will join us in Detroit for an exciting journey to think about how we can redefine the good life.

John Izzo
Bestselling Author and Thought Leader
Awakening Corporate Soul
April 25, 2017

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