ESG transformation / Sustainability

How to successfully engage managers and employees

It is worth looking inwards when putting a sustainability strategy into practice. The company’s managers and employees are an irreplaceable resource. When engaged, they make for authentic ambassadors of the company’s ESG goals and measures. 

The pressure on companies to operate and do business more sustainably is growing from all sides. Those in charge are right to focus their attention on the capital market, the public and policymakers. Yet it is also worth focussing on the company’s employees and managers. It is the company’s staff who put the sustainability strategy into practice in their day-to-day work and make it ‘operational’, as it were. A well-communicated sustainability strategy is motivating and boosts staff engagement and retention. Employees are not to be underestimated in their capacity as ambassadors for the company’s goals and initiatives. They are an important means of communication for the employer brand, as it is perceived by talented individuals.

There is agreement up until this point. However, the question of how to effectively engage this valuable target group is an interesting one. Three factors are crucial.

Understanding: “What is it all about?”

In most cases, employees are not able or willing to support things that they do not understand. Engagement starts with knowledge transfer. And a sustainability strategy draws on a variety of ESG issues. It is important to be transparent about why certain priorities have been set in the sustainability strategy and how they fit in with the company’s history and plans for the future. An interesting narrative explains and demonstrates that the company’s activities are not arbitrary or opportunistic. It makes it clear that each employee can help to achieve the goals and what exactly this entails. This provides the basis for identifying with and engaging in the company’s sustainability goals. The narrative paves the way for further mediation specific to the target group, whether that be an animated film or a speech template for managers. It acts as a guiding star.

Operationalisation: “What can I do?”

Another way to successfully engage employees is to raise awareness of the issues that stakeholders represent and what the company’s position is on them. Essentially, they need to be enabled to speak about these topics. Besides promoting open dialogue with stakeholders, boot camps are very effective in this regard for those members of staff who are most likely to speak internally and externally, i.e. managers. What is the situation as regards the industry’s CO2 emissions? Is the business model really destroying inner cities? What is being done to fight corruption? How do things look in terms of women in leadership positions? At ESG boot camps, all questions – even the seemingly unpleasant ones – are put on the table. Participants are taught how to respond sensitively and, most importantly, with facts to partially public or public discourse. It inspires self-confidence and drive.

Engagement: “Get out the way, here I come!”

A large proportion of employees talk about their employer to acquain­tances, on evaluation platforms or in social net­works. They are a means of communication to the outside world that is not to be under­estimated – in both a positive and a negative sense. Un­favourable instances of employee activism (for example, Google employees recently strongly condemned their employer’s discriminatory behaviour) are a phenomenon that is still uncommon in Germany. However, they show how important it is to manage this means of communication. But instead of gagging their employees, companies like the Otto Group or Microsoft are bringing them onto the virtual and, increasingly, the physical stage in a well prepared manner. Keywords include corporate influencer programmes and formats such as the speakers bureau.

Targeted training of employees and managers as well as clearly defining a range of issues in which they can have an impact will tap into the previously un­exploited communication potential. When coordinated with the company’s communication planning, this allows corporate communication to add more voices to its own sustain­ability messaging. The applications are as diverse as the employees them­selves. Strengthening reach by means of multipli­cation, defending thought leader­ship in debates and the authentic acquisition of talented individuals are just a handful of the many things that are conceivable if employees and managers are given both space and guidance.

So how does the sustain­ability strategy become a shared mission? Success­ful engage­ment invariably requires a shared under­standing of the company’s sustain­ability goals. Raising awareness of the perspectives of different stakeholder groups and facilitating constructive dialogue will lay the foundation for people to become truly active. If there is the necessary leeway to do so, corporate communication will have acquired countless authentic ambassadors for the company’s ESG goals and measures.