The first 4 questions Sustainability leaders should ask themselves before starting anything

knight in armour

While you may think that sustainability leaders rush like knights in shining armour from organisational crisis to crisis, or constantly correct flaws in operational culture, many seek to balance their ethical leadership skills and approaches with careful pragmatism and problem-solving skills in advance of issues becomming critical corporate concerns.   The focus is always on the long-term leadership and business growth that sustainability can bring to the business, rather than the shorter term management of day-to-day risks.

This blog seeks to set out a few tips on how to think more like a sustainability leader in business building on your environmental management skills.

Whether you are new to the role and have never implemented a new operational policy, or even if you consider yourself a corporate CSR wizard.  There are still a few brainstorming principles that you should with before any proposed initiative goes public.  Taking the time to strategise will pay significant benefits as you eventually shape, form and ultimately deliver a sustainability solution.  A solution that clearly communicates to the business, its sector or society what you are trying to achieve in terms of business sustainability.

1   Ask yourself: What is the purpose of the initiative and what will it achieve for others?

It may surprise you to learn that sustainability professionals are at their heart system thinkers and problem solvers, or if not solving a problem, then raising awareness of issues as opportunities for future change, advancement or beneficial re-alignment in the businesses. So the first place to start when laying the foundations for a future initiative is to give your proposed initiative a clear and simple business success objective. This way, later in the project, if you hit a roadblock, obstructions or find yourself confused by the direction it is taking, this objective can serve as your overarching target to help you shape the route to achievement or solution selection.

If you’re implementing a new process or policy, or seeking investment within the corporate planning cycle, your objective should be bold and inspiring to those that you want to influence or support you in making the initiative a reality, yet ultimately pragmatic.  Be careful in making it so bold that it starts to detach itself from business reality or value.  Sustainability initiatives in business should always be grounded in commercial reality or purpsoe, or possess a comprehensible logic path that inspires an alteration in overall business strategy.  The expected organisational and business benefits of your initiative must be clear, set out succinctly and supportable.

2   Ask yourself: What already exists around me?

The next step, despite how excited you are to start implementing your initiative, is to make sure you have undertaken some local research and consultation.  Go out and talk about the issue with operational contacts, managers and with those who hold the keys to implementing the solution.  This provides an opportunity to gauge what skills, ideas, initiatives and future asset/maintenance investment plans are ongoing.  Forming a network of future participants, supporters or the identification of future blockers, will help  you evaluate what +ve or -ve issues will be raised or the assets that need to be/can be adapted to suit.  When researching solutions, it provides a clearer idea of other technologies, approaches or concepts that those more familiar with operational management issues can buy into and support.  Remember it is about achieving the final objective of business improvement, not whether your preferred solution is better than an alternative suggested by others.  You may have the right idea but companies operate on subtle inter-personnel communications and influence pathways, and it is the internal political battles that deliver change and which you need to win to ensure the longevity of your initiative.

Take note of the suggestions, proposals and even offers of help, so that you can use these ideas when plotting out the structure of your initiative when you decide to really push the ‘go’ button.

3   Ask yourself: What business problems am I trying to solve?

This step involves asking yourself further questions to help create a clear leadership briefing paper or proposal for your initiative.  It also helps you streamline the intent of your proposal.  Yes, it must have a clear business sustainability element to it, but it must also have readily identifiable long or short-term business benefits when viewed from other perspectives.  Unfortunately in business life – ‘because it is green!’ is sometimes not a good enough argument to initiate change!  Below are the types of questions to ask yourself:

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

Here, you seek to identify both the long-term and short-term challenges that the business faces, and what you are trying to solve through your initiative.  In the case of carbon emissions, the problem is not only the global impact of carbon, but locally the focus may be more strongly focussed within Procurement on the current cost of energy provision.  In Planning – the long-term rise in energy costs, or in Marketing how energy use is to be reported in supply chain carbon calculators, or in the C-suite the organisations reliance on a 3rd party for a key production input, or competition for that resource in future production.  Reflected through the worldviews of other colleagues, it still amounts to carbon emissions.  The lesson to learn is how others associate or view the same issue!

Who will benefit from the Initiative?

When starting to plan out an initiative or sustainable change in operational culture, it is important to consider who your internal (and increasingly the external) audience is, and what their current or future needs will be.  Having already engaged many internally on the issue you should have started to formulate ideas on how to shape the initiative for greatest success, what solutions will others buy into, or what objections still remain to be overcome, and how these can be turned around.

What would the business want the solution to look or feel like?

Instead of focusing on the aesthetics, process or ultimately maximising the sustainability of the solution, remember that sustainability leadership is all about ratcheting up the overall sustainability performance of the business.  Often as long as the business is moving forward steadily on its sustainability journey – then that is a win in itself!  Be prepared to sacrifice 20% of your initiative if its still delivers 80% success.  Don’t lose the initiative entirely through unreasonable expectations on others, their worldview, their lack of support.  Their worldview and the immediate pressures they are under will strongly influence their decision-making and buy-in.

It is always worth spending time considering the emotions that you want your initiative to elicit – a sense of pride in the business, ownership for a solution, buy-in to participate or even just acceptance and compliance with the new direction if it means minimum disruption. .

4   Ask yourself: How will I roll this out?

Now that you’ve outlined the key business objectives and benefits of your initiative and have built a supportive network internally, it’s time to decide how you will roll it out.  If it is outside your immediate budgetary allowance, then at this point it can be advisable to approach the key decision makers, those who will ultimately decide on the labour, investment or even operational space for change and ask them directly for advice and for help by sketching out their preferred route through the corporate jungle.

As they think through the issue and outline a proposed route, you can gain satisfaction in watching their mental buy-in to the initiative and its alignment with their preferred worldview of how best to move your objective into business operations and ultimately into a more sustainable corporate culture.