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  • Writer's pictureChrissa Pagitsas

Ambition is Tricky: Setting Sustainability Goals

People running
Support your peers in setting ambitious goals
I need to get the green light from the C-Suite on the sustainability strategy and goals my team has built. But I am concerned that I will get the red light because the goals will be "too ambitious" for our company. How do I manage this important approval?

Calibrating ambition is tricky. You want to aim high with ambitious goals but know that even the minimum, smallest goals may seem insurmountable. Getting the green light from peers and leadership on a sustainability strategy is a bit like convincing your friend, a hesitant first-time runner, to run a race with you. And not just a 5K race, but a marathon. 

To get to the green light, start by putting yourself in the (running) shoes of the non-sustainability leader:

  • You're asking the non-sustainability leader to think in new ways about topics in which they likely do not have a deep strategic or technical understanding such as environmental risks, social issues, and governance practices .

  • You're asking them to draw a line in the sand publicly - become net zero by 2040, increase diverse hiring by 50% - and commit to it with limited market data that others have successfully accomplished such a goal. 

So how do you overcome these barriers? 

1. Speak to the business strategy first. Has your first-time running friend competed in a cooking competition? Met sales targets at work? What language does your friend already speak that you can relate the training and racing to? Similarly, the sustainability strategy cannot operate as a silo outside of the business' core strategy. So when talking about the sustainability strategy, tie the strategy and goals to the procurement strategy, the supplier strategy, and products and sales strategy. The sustainability strategy and goals have to tie to and be supportive of the core business strategy and products and presented in that language. Tie sustainability outcomes to business outcomes.

2. Benchmark your company's goals to peers: Race results show us how our running time compares with peers of like age and sex. If someone the same age as your friend ran a 10K race successfully, then likely so can your friend. Similarly, benchmarking your company's proposed sustainability strategy and goals gives context to the non-sustainability leaders in a language they understand.

3. Show how your company will benefit from Good (Regulatory Minimum), Better (In-line with Peers), Best (Leading Peers) options: Races come in many lengths, and there are benefits (and risks) with training and running them. Clearly explain what the benefits are for setting ambition at a "good" level and meeting the minimum regulatory requirements vs. setting ambition higher and being in-line with peers. When showing the benefits and risks of the "best" option but most ambitious, be sure to choose solid data points or the case may be undermined quickly.

4. Be realistic with culture and other factors outside of your control. Despite your efforts, your friend may have their own personal reasons for not wanting to run a marathon. They will want to walk a 5K. While you may be disappointed, recognize that many factors are at play when ambition is set for sustainability goals. Culture is one, leadership changes is another, and many others. If your company gives you the green light on goals that are less ambitious than you would have preferred, it's still a win.

Take heart and help your company train for that race. As they move forward with the equivalent of a 5K training plan, company leadership may realize that training for a 10K is not that much harder. Soon enough, the ambition has been raised and they are training for a marathon.


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