Mentoring Young Sustainability Leaders – Inexperience is Normal, Problems are rarely unique and don’t be a Prophet without a portfolio

In the late ‘80s I entered the Power Industry.  I was tasked with helping ScottishPower set up its first environmental team.  There were no rules, little supervision and precious few guidelines on ‘how to get green done’.  My MD’s first words to me were on the rabbits at the bottom of his garden – no doubt a fascinating topic to this new breed of non-engineering employee! 

Soon after this I was working with one of the older mechanical engineers on an air dispersion model for a proposed waste-to-energy plant.  I used an early ADMS computer programme, he achieved comparable results on the back of an envelope!  I was bemoaning my lack of experience in this area and the difficulties I faced relating the result to potential dioxin dispersion, and how I would incorporate the results into the Environmental Impact Assessment.

 ‘Experience’ he gently said, ‘Experience is only gained through facing up to your lack of experience!’  A great lesson from a highly intelligent and modest man.

Now after 25 years’ experience in environmental impact assessment, management and sustainability I find myself addressing 3 common themes again and again with new sustainability and environmental managers during mentoring discussions:

1. You don’t have to know everything.

The more you know, the less you know’.  As you grow in confidence and knowledge the questions get bigger as new areas open, new linkages are found, and solutions open further avenues of mental exploration.  No one person can ever understand the complexity of ‘the environment’ – for heaven’s sake we don’t even possess an internationally recognised definition for the word.  We must accept that often what we face is novel, specific to that location and has a mass of intangibles tied up with it. 

You must come to accept that in some areas you will alays remain a ‘professional generalist’ – able to cover a wide spectrum of environmental topics, expert in some but only touching the surface of others. 

What’s the solution – learn to ask others for help!  It isn’t weakness it is a strength that will pay back dividends if managed carefully.  I have worked with many great environmentalists and engineers on a large variety of complex large infrastructure and sustainability management projects.  I have been thrown into stakeholder bearpits, investment board meetings and national emergencies such as flooding, food & Mouth epidemics and terrorist incidents.  There is no previously written guidebook on how to manage, but the best possible approach is to surround yourself with, or have access to, those that can add to the jigsaw solution.  If you don’t know the answer, the best route is always to say either ‘I don’t know but I will find out and come back to you on that issue’; ‘Do any of you know the answer to this’ or ‘Can you engineer me a better solution with these outcomes’.  

Rather than losing trust by displaying ignorance, it builds trust as you solve complex problems as a team, your colleagues comes to realise that they are dealing with a professional who understands the risk in, and limitations of, their knowledge, is prepared to say so honestly and work with others co-operatively to find a solution.  The worst thing you can do is bluster or pretend that you fully understand all the parameters of the dilemma.  No one expects you to know everything. Relax. And ask open questions that may stimulate the answer through others.  Try it!

2. My problem is unique.

I have seen young managers work themselves into a state because they feel that they are the only one at this coalface.  The organisational culture is unique, the problem is unique and hence the solution must be unique.  They feel that the problems they face are so specific to them, so much so that external advice or options will not help.

What is the solution – You can internalise a problem and hope that your mental skills set can find a solution, or you can externalise a problem and gain help?  Whichever route you take the responsibility for solving the problem remains with you and must be ultimately owned by you as the leader.  Personally, I often enjoy switching into an external mindset when debating problems and potential solutions, I want to hear how others think about the issue, what they suggest and what experiences they can bring to the table.  I also data mine externally looking at how other organisations have addressed the issue to gain ideas.  I then go back and work through the new information, sifting for ideas and a solution that fits before taking the decision to press forward again.

As Tom Lehrer in 1953 so aptly put it about the secret of being a successful mathematician:

‘Plagiarize!  Let no one else’s work evade your eyes

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes

So, don’t shade your eyes but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize

Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’!”

This has helped me find solutions to laying underground electricity cables in water pipeline technology, decision making models via the car industry, and ecological answers in hardware shops.  Keep your problem-solving radar active and never let a good idea pass you by!    

Your responsibility ultimately lies in making the decision on how the organisation progresses, you can’t duck this, and the decision risk should always remain with you as the accountable leaders.  You can make decisions via committee but watch out for group think and consensus through banality.  The most appropriate approach is often to cast widely, listen to what others have to say, challenge their assumptions (try playing the Devil’s Advocate in conversations) and ultimately select the one that you can confidently deliver on through your abilities, resources and organisational support networks.  

3.  Are you following your ideas at the expense of working for the best interests of the organisation?

I have seen young professionals run into a mental wall when their goals are dashed through organisational inertia to change.  I have experienced it myself at times, and it can set you back mentally and physically when an organisation refuses to change its preferred ways of working. 

Then is the time to take a good long hard look in the mirror … were you following your own preferred agenda or in the best interests of the organisation.  Had you planned sufficiently, had you sold the idea to others, sufficiently and ultimately would it have added value?  I have seen environmental and general managers pursue microcosm agendas that no one else in the organisation believes in or understands.  As a Case Study, a previous Director who fixated on the cost of biscuits served in meetings whilst his division’s budget was cut… we wanted strategic changes, he wanted Rich Tea biscuits. 

I have on occasions advised environmental managers to look hard at their priorities, not only through an environmental lens but also what it will mean in terms of enterprise risk management, the corporate plan. Internal budgets, brand and stakeholder benefits.  Incorporating these factors into your sustainability agenda helps prioritise action, expands your organisational worldview, forces you to seek input from others and to understand how their cog spins in the corporate machine and who they interface with. 

What is the solution – Ask yourself whose sustainability agenda are you working on and what is the desired outcome?  Is it your own preference, added value for the organizations or the world?  These objectives are not either/or options they interact, but there are trade-offs, and ultimately your focus must be on the operational, economic and sustainability of the organisation that employs you.  That doesn’t mean that you say ‘yes’ to everything.  You are there after all to bring through cultural change management towards a more sustainable operating business model.  But in organisational life there are often trade-offs that need to be considered, and these may require you to put aside your personal sustainability agenda for the moment and get stuck into the priorities of others in the business.  Similarly pursuing a radical sustainability agenda will not be in the best interest of a company if no one understands its value, instead a more strategic, leading-but-not-agitating approach may take you further.  Whatever your agenda, the preferred legacy is that your colleagues adopt the initiative into their personal worldview, live it and hopefully pass it on others – that is success in sustainability leadership book!

At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s