Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What language should we use when speaking about sustainability? Reactions from the NY GreenBiz Forum

At the GreenBiz Forum, one of the most common questions attendees asked was this:
How do I get my CEO or CFO to support environmental and social initiatives that I develop?

This question is certainly legitimate. Those in a CSR function at a company must convince executives of the importance in the strategies they develop, which is not an easy task when the strategies are not directly related to core business function. As challenging as this might seem, the resounding answer to the above question is very simple: show executives how such initiatives will benefit the company. Explain to them how they will result in financial gain and voilĂ : you will get the attention and support you want.

Demonstrating how CSR strategy produces revenue requires that you can talk the talk. The language you use when speaking to executives cannot be full of scientific jargon and environmental concepts. Indeed, Curtis Ravenel from Bloomberg urged all of us to learn the language of the financial community and use it exclusively. Members of the sustainability community so often want to highlight the importance of working for environmental and social good, but even the most eloquent and perfectly-argued pitch will fall upon deaf ears if it is not in the language its audience knows best.

At first, those who strongly advocate for environmental and social causes might feel like they are “selling out” by resorting to highlighting exclusively financial benefits. The motto that CSR is not about the values, just about the value might leave a bad taste in their mouth. The fact is however, there is no better way to promote environmental and social programs to those in decision-making positions at companies.

As a former educator, I would never teach elementary school students using the same language I use when speaking with my colleagues. If I did, I would lose their interest and understanding within minutes. Encouraging certain behavior and understanding requires a thorough reading of your audience and the finesse to frame your message in a relevant and meaningful way. This strategy is important to consider when communicating with anyone, but is especially applicable when pitching an idea to your CEO!

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