How can consulting firms engage with the key people buying sustainability services?

  • Edward Edgcumbe

If you skimmed the LinkedIn accounts of 100 CFOs, you’d not only have our sympathy, but you’d also notice an extremely consistent set of qualifications and career paths. Try to do the same with a sustainability leader and you’ll find it much harder to pick out the same trends—in fact it’s possible that, depending on the organisation, the most senior person tasked with sustainability isn’t even in the C-suite.

Over the past few years, we’ve spoken to a whole host of different buyers of sustainability consulting in public and private sector organisations around the world. Today, we’re focusing on three kinds of buyer and how they need different styles of account management to support them.

The voice in the wilderness

This is an all too common position for a sustainability officer: They’ve been appointed because senior leadership knows this position should exist, but they haven’t been given any real powers or—crucially—any real budget. They need to have a rare blend of coalition-building and persistence, but they can often feel isolated.

What do they need from a consulting firm?

A consulting firm’s superpower, especially for clients that span the globe, is to better connect organisations. Put your weight behind the sustainability officer, open doors and help to bolster their credibility with the more sceptical business units: Their personal budget may be small, but with your support they can unlock spending across the whole business.

The evangelical leader

We’ve heard from plenty of organisations where the key driver of sustainability is the CEO, perhaps because they’ve had a damascene moment or they’re newly arrived with a mandate to deliver change and pivot the existing business model.

What do they need from a consulting firm?

Having the attention of the CEO can be a double-edged sword: While they’re invested it seems like anything is possible, but their enthusiasm isn’t guaranteed, and we’ve all met the leaders who are easily distracted or flit to a shiny new topic every month. You need to strike while the sustainability iron is hot; pouring their enthusiasm into projects and strategies that will receive their endorsement and then quickly become a key priority for other parts of the business, where they’ll persist and flourish in the longer term.

The sceptic

This buyer can occupy almost any senior position in a client organisation, and are often the person you meet through the passionate sustainability officer or CEO. They might well lead a legacy or long-standing business unit where the way things work are deeply settled or one that seems, to them at least, to be far away from immediate sustainability concerns.

What do they need from a consulting firm?

Time and again clients have told us that they want to see the business case for change, not just be told that “sustainability is the right thing to do”. This buyer has an entrenched mindset and believes that action on sustainability is likely to undermine existing systems and risks disrupting their bonus and KPIs—in this sense, they’re really in need of some of the classic tools of change management. They need thought leadership that’s relevant to their sector, attainable steps with clear metrics, and—most crucially—a safe way to soften their scepticism and change their mind.

We’ll be exploring the variations that we’ve seen in different geographies and sectors in future blogs and in our forthcoming Market Trends report on sustainability.