From stakeholder buy-in to stakeholder inclusion: how to increase adoption of ESG initiatives

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By Courtney Moore, Director, Europe Sales and Client Management

If you’re managing a travel program today, you’re likely familiar with the recurring challenge of obtaining senior buy-in for new initiatives.

This is especially common for projects that come with a cost, and particularly those that are not revenue-generating such as those focused on environmental, social or governance (ESG) initiatives. For example, common ESG initiatives like sustainability and traveler wellbeing projects often get sidelined due to competing priorities. It’s also important to acknowledge that companies today have a broader spectrum of stakeholders than just those approving budgets. In this article, we’ll consider a new approach to engage your stakeholders; one that focuses less on budgets and buy-in and more on impact and inclusion.

It’s important to consider all your stakeholders as part of the initial goal-setting process. And by stakeholders, we mean everyone who feels the impact of our business decisions – employees, suppliers, competitors, and even communities. They’re equally a part of collective success and should therefore be given stakes in the decision-making processes. This requires a shift away from the old approach of managing stakeholders, where information tends to flow one-way within the company, like delivering a presentation or report to stakeholders.

Instead, we must start shifting from stakeholder management to stakeholder engagement, and eventually stakeholder inclusion. This provides shared opportunity and responsibility to stakeholders to become active members in addressing the challenges we face. It means being aligned around core values, making space for the two-way flow of information and ideas, and collaboratively involving stakeholders in decisions, rather than micromanaging.

This new approach is directly inspired by the UN Global Compact, which suggests stakeholder inclusion is a way of moving closer to achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs). Here’s a framework for moving towards stakeholder inclusion in your own travel program initiatives. Though we’re using sustainability as our driving example, this approach also works to align stakeholders around other people and community focused decisions such as traveler & employee wellness, diversity and inclusion, and more.

1. Identify your stakeholders

The first step is identifying who your stakeholders are. This is pretty broad and can include any individual or group that could influence or be influenced by your company’s objectives. It might be shareholders, middle management, line employees, travel suppliers, customers, community groups, and even government agencies. Keep in mind that you’ll have to approach each stakeholder group differently. You won’t approach suppliers the same way you would to your senior leadership team on the same initiative.

2. Understand their motivations

Next, it’s important to understand the interests, priorities, and goals that motivate the different groups of stakeholders. Be aware that these won’t always align with those of the company: the CEO’s priorities may differ from those of an employee, for example.

Their motivations and current level of engagement will affect your approach. You may have to start with approach #1 but over time the goal is to shift toward #3 and #4.

  1. Minimum requirement: Is motivation simply adherence to legislative or reporting requirements? Particularly with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and other ESG related legislation coming into effect.
  2. Risk-avoidance: Why do stakeholders care about sustainability initiatives? Is it a case of avoiding reputational damage or legal liability?
  3. Opportunity-based: Are stakeholders motivated by creating value and sharing their values, possibly to increase sales by having a positive reputation?
  4. Stewardship: Are they considering the overall positive societal impact, with initiatives such as public advocacy or work in the local community?

3. Create targets for each group

Once you understand the motivations of each group of stakeholders, you can create targets that will resonate with them. Here’s what that might look like with a sustainability lens:

  1. For those motivated by meeting the minimum requirements, your ideal target will be legal compliance.
  2. For the risk avoiders, at the very least you’ll want to do no harm, avoiding any legal or financial penalties for exceeding emissions targets.
  3. To target opportunity-based stakeholders, you’ll want to think about long-term shared values like emissions reduction, which may not be directly tied to the overall purpose of the company but can certainly benefit their business.
  4. Finally, purpose-driven goals will interest those motivated by stewardship. This is about aligning the company with broader global goals (such as the Science Based Target Initiative, the IPCC, or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) rather than thinking strictly about legal compliance.

4. Decide on outcomes and approaches

It’s important to be clear about what you want to achieve and who should be involved. Rather than thinking of short-term targets, the goal here is to shift towards a purpose-driven, consultative, and collaborative approach to engage all stakeholders, and build long-term relationships and partnerships around shared values and objectives. Stakeholders aren’t then a group to be “managed,” but stewards of your values who are aligned with those values.

This also helps travel managers avoid the situation of having to seek separate buy-in for the individual parts of a strategy. When stakeholders have been included and a strategy has been agreed, they can keep making changes and improvements to move towards the overall objective.

A stakeholder inclusion approach means deeper conversations and cooperation, continuous improvement, and a more purpose-led focus where everyone recognizes their responsibility in dealing with our society’s collective challenges. Reach out to us today for help building a business case around your ESG initiatives.

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