Leadership & change: the role of effective sustainability reporting

In the first of these articles on sustainability reporting, I argued companies need to telling a coherent story in their reporting across the four inter-related areas—setting the context, articulating their purpose, demonstrating innovation and showcasing impact.

This makes the reports more interesting to read, and engages more people outside the business in sustainability programmes. In this piece, I am arguing that reporting is also an opportunity for successfully engaging people inside your company, creating more internal alignment and building a stronger business.

“Really?” I hear you cry. Lots of corporate responsibility managers will have been left exhausted or metaphorically beaten up by the demands of putting together a report. Reporting is surely at best a chore.

Of course, on one level it can be. Reporting is too often backwards-looking. And the process can seem to oscillate horribly between fraught and dull.

How can you engage internal stakeholders in your reporting?

Yes, reporting is demanding, challenging and messy. You are asking people to do more when they are already busy enough. You want them to reconsider their approach or to set stretch targets. And often, you won’t have all the information you would ideally have at the very moment you need it. You can deal with all this, but what will really help is if you can demonstrate the leadership qualities of being able to explain clearly why this work matters, motivating people to do what’s required.

The reporting process is not so much about managing upwards as leading. You need to show the ability to put a clear plan into action and to inspire others to follow it.

All along the reporting process, opportunities will present themselves to build bridges across the organisation, engage colleagues in the bigger picture and make a real difference.

The reporting process can vary from company to company but it will broadly follow four vital phases….

1.     Defining the report parameters

At the kick-off stage (as with any significant project), you need to establish some key parameters. First, what is it you are trying to achieve? What are the objectives? An award-winning report that sets a new benchmark for your sector or a ‘run-with-the-pack’ document?

Then of course it’s the people: who is responsible for leading it, who else is involved, and what are their roles? And what other assets might you need? Where can you find them?

This is a vital stage in the process and the opportunities for internal engagement and making change happen start here. You can lead a conversation about your collective ambition for the report and by extension for the sustainability programme that it covers. This allows you to be challenging and supportive to senior leadership: you are the expert. You need to keep them up to date about societal expectations, reporting trends and the benefits of reporting. (If you aren’t sure, ask us!)

I would always recommend involving colleagues in marketing or brand early in the process, and this is the right time. Reporting is about transparency, which in turn is about building trust. You have every reason to be deeply engaged with the brand team, because this stuff should be keeping them awake at night!

2.     Establish what to report and gather data

Working out what should be reported and what metrics should be used is where your materiality assessment comes in. Usually this is a process of establishing key stakeholder concerns and how those issues might impact on your business. But smart CSR or sustainability managers use this process as an opportunity to engage senior management in blue-sky thinking about the long-term sustainability challenges facing the world, and how they relate to the future of the business.

The best framework for this conversation is the Sustainable Development Goals—17 goals agreed by the global community as priorities for 2030, if we are to put the world on a more sustainable footing. By siting materiality in this bigger conversation, examining longer-term risks and opportunities for the business, a CSR manager can facilitate a process for business leaders to engage in some valuable future-proofing.

Having established what to report, you must now go and source the data from colleagues. This is not just about compiling data; it’s also an opportunity to work with them, analysing it and evaluating performance. You’ll establish what insights can be drawn from the data, and begin considering how you are going to present those insights to your stakeholders so they can make informed decisions about the business.

3.     Write and produce the report

At this stage of the process, you are working out key messages, creating a structure and page plans and reviewing best practice and guidelines on what to include and how best to present it.

The report is a corporate document (or website) and so must adhere to corporate communication standards. And the content you are shaping aims to build trust with stakeholders. At this point you have a great reason to spend more time with marketing and brand teams.

 

What part can the report play in their ambitions for developing the brand? How can you repurpose the content for use after the report is finished? How should you produce the report and support its launch? These are the kinds of questions your marketing colleagues should be delighted to hear you ask! By working with them, you can both improve your report and help them understand how CSR and sustainability can be more front and centre in the company’s communications.

4.     Review and take action

As the report approaches its final stages, you are setting targets for the future. You may be engaging external assurance consultants to provide a view on the report, or you may simply be getting the attention of senior management directly.

In either case, the finalising of the report is a moment to reflect and re-articulate the ambition for the year ahead. What are we going to be aiming for? What are we going to do differently?

Reporting is about transparency, yes. But it is also a tool to drive a company’s management to react to well-structured information and make changes to improve the sustainability and performance of the business.

All about leadership

The reporting process is not so much about managing upwards as leading. You need to show the ability to put a clear plan into action and to inspire others to follow it. You need to be able to motivate people to go the extra mile and work hard on something that is not core to their day job. You need to help people see a vision of the future for your business that they hadn’t yet considered.

These are all leadership capacities. Yes, reporting can be draining and a cumbersome process. But operating as an internal leader in your business, it can also be an opportunity to break down silos, to celebrate colleagues’ work and achievements, and to help the company make more positive impact in the world.

 

Adam Garfunkel is an owner and Managing Director at Junxion. He’s been involved in corporate sustainability and social responsibility for more than 20 years, writing award-winning reports and supporting the advancement of social responsibility on three continents.

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