Sustainability is a word that has become very popular. This is largely as a result of concerns about the environment, and it is in that ‘green’ context that it is most widely used. Since the economic crash of 2008, however, the term has been used increasingly in a business context. Unfortunately, here it is a bit more ambiguous, not least because it is so often used in connection with the organisation’s efforts to safeguard the environment, rather than in the more pertinent context – at least for the stakeholders of the business – of its own survival.
At its most basic business sustainability simply means the organisation’s ability to survive. This can be extended in various ways, as exemplified the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) here in the UK, which states that sustainability “refers to an organisation’s people, financial, environmental and societal contribution over time.”
There is a danger that broadening the definition in this way gives people more to think about and so weakens the underlying imperative behind it. Yet this definition also adds value by giving you a clearer insight as to what is involved. The fact is that any organisation’s ultimate survival depends on its economic contribution. This obviously includes its financial stability and the impact it has both on its customer base and the world at large. The people factor is perhaps the one that is less obvious.
Now you would expect an organisation like the CIPD to promote the people aspect, but the fact is that business sustainability – an organisation’s ability to be successful and stay successful – is ultimately dependent on one thing and one thing only: the people that work there. Of course it can still fail if other factors work against it, even if it has the right people; but if it doesn’t have the right people or make the best use of the people it does have, it can have everything else going for it and still be be at risk.
This is why the CIPD are absolutely spot on when they identify the three primary enablers of business sustainability as: Leadership, Engagement and Organisational Development. Also when they identify alignment, distributed leadership and shared purpose as key elements of these enablers. No organisation can effectively respond to change and balance its short-term and long-term requirements without these.
Yet they still continue to focus on the research and the case studies instead of building on these findings to lead the development and wider implementation of solutions that will foster the business sustainability they promote. This is unfortunate, because it is glaringly obvious. Employee ownership offers a mechanism to build and cement all these enablers and their constituent elements.
Let’s take a closer look to validate this.
Employee ownership brings the employees into line with the objectives of the business more than any other known tool. If it is their business, employees will inevitably be more attuned to doing what is necessary to safeguard its future. It means that instead of becoming a management issue and a problem for management to solve, alignment now becomes nothing more than a communication challenge, and one which they themselves will do as much to facilitate as management.
Distributed leadership is the obverse of alignment. It simply entails senior leaders setting the strategy and then empowering managers and their people to innovate and hence drive sustainable organisation performance. This is essential for the implementation of change and is easily done through employee ownership and the alignment described earlier.
What can better create a sense of shared purpose than the sustainability of a successful business? Employee Ownership certainly creates the foundation and superstructure for this.
With these three factors in place, the task of leadership becomes so much easier, and the platform is laid for both greater employee engagement and organisational development through an embedded culture of continuous improvement sparked by the goal of sustainability. Employee ownership certainly offers a powerful management solution that, when you factor in the ability to provide it at no-cost and with no equity stake, you could even say is a panacea.
Bay Jordan, author of “Lean Organisations Need Fat People” and “A Feeling of Worth,” is the founding director of Zealise Limited. Zealise helps businesses to value their people, offering a unique, non-equity employee ownership system that creates greater employee engagement with better teamwork and strategic alignment that transforms performance and bottom line results. To find out more about how these breakthrough management solutions will help you and your business please check the website at http://www.zealise.com