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

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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.

Getting Green Done ……

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I was amazed as a young environmental colleague lamented the lack of success, she had had recently in presenting her CEO with a new sustainability initiative.

‘He threw out most of my proposal and gave me only 30% of what I wanted!’

The initiative was wrecked, she was down-heartened, she had embarrassed herself, and her enthusiasm was now at a low ebb through disappointment.  It had been a bold initiative, it had matched her vision for what the company could achieve, had aligned with their new sustainability policy and could have delivered real business value.  The whole initiative reflected well on her and the career training she had received to date. 

‘Wow! I was thinking, 30% – that’s just great as a first step I mused, but in her disappointment, I sensed the frustration that many graduates today in the sustainability field feel when entering the workplace.  They leave their institutes with high expectations and run full tilt into the operational realities and encounters that are so common in organisational bearpits.  What was once so clear and rational in the classroom becomes murky and complex when it must be delivered through workplace colleagues.  Organisations just don’t act as rationally as sympathetic classmates with shared worldviews on sustainable development. ‘We must do this’ becomes quickly challenged by ‘Why must we do this?’, ‘But….’, ‘Perhaps when we have the time and money!’ or even a stonewalling ‘No!’. 

It took time to explain to her that I was impressed and pleased for her, that 30% success is not failure but success when you are trail blazing!  For after two decades in corporate environmental risk management and sustainability you learn that any advance or step forward is a good win. 

In sustainability, we are first and foremost business change managers, our role is to ratchet up organisational performance, to deliver value outcomes and to continually progress ‘getting green done’ within organisations.  There are very few ‘Look at Me!’ and ‘Aren’t I Great!’ moments for many environmental professionals within organisations. 

Personally, my greatest inner satisfaction comes from watching others adopt sustainability thinking into their work because it now makes strategic sense to them, aligns with new business direction or reinforces a strong organisational culture with a new worldview.  That is my reward. We all like success and the recognition of high performance by our peers, but when your leadership is enacted via changes in the behaviours of others don’t be surprised if it is overlooked.  Remember that people rarely own up to changing thier past opinions. 

It was clear that her CEO had been supportive and had giving her a chance to progress her initiative but had yet to be totally convinced enough to give her the whole package.  She had first to deliver on this element before any further funding or support was granted – a clear pragmatic leadership decision.

We all need mentors in our professional lives, colleagues who can guide us through the organisational minefield, suggest alternative ways forward and pick us up when we are downhearted or discouraged.  It took time to show my colleague that her disappointment in the meetings outcome was unjustified and had in fact been a win.  She had set her heart on 100% success, her CEO in supporting her had granted 30%.

So now we have started work on ensuring that she does successfully deliver on the 30% she has been entrusted with.  In doing so, we are working out what her strategy will be and how she will bering on other colleagues to gain the next 30%, and the 30% after that, and the 30% after that ……until she wins over the CEO and gets his full backing for her vision. 

So, don’t expect 100% success overnight, building a sustainability foundation within an organisational culture involves a slow but continuous ratcheting up of performance over time.  It is a marathon, not a sprint and that ultimately success is in…just Getting Green Done!

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Note: I have happily borrowed the phrase ‘Getting Green Done’ from the book of the same name by Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. It is a useful read for sustainability professionals enetering any work sector.

‘Consume less’ to save the Planet or ‘Consume more’ to save your Economy

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

A political and economic paradox, but a paradox that is currently operating in the UK.

Over 2/3rds of the UK’s GDP depends on household consumption.  Whilst this helps to explain the resilience in the economy to Brexit chaos and most post-war UK recessions, as exports and investments are relatively minor components of current GDP.  It stands against us as a measure of UK future economic sustainable development.

In contrast, what does cause economic recession in the UK? – when we consume less and when we save more!

Both issues raise questions about how business & sustainability professionals address future ‘growth’ strategies.  There are many UK businesses whose leadership have committed their organisations towards responsible leadership practice and the integration of business sustainability within their core strategies.  These actions are to be praised and applauded as they form the keystones of the UK’s commitment to a greener business economy.

However do we truly believe that the next phase in sustainable development is sustainability modelled around continued rises in household consumption?

Increasingly consumers now demonstrate greater awareness and response to what they spend their incomes on, and how they view ethical brands, sustainable goods and services. This is great news and is helping to demonstrate the growth and value benefits to businesses of responsible leadership and sustainability in businesses. However, consumers are also not letting up in their desire to spend and acquire more. We are purchasing smarter but we are still purchasing more than we need, and save less than other European nations.

We are still decades away from getting to grips with a circular economy or one that is sustainably balanced in terms of inputs and outputs.  However, there needs to be a bridging phase during which we embed more sustainable business models into the economy, coupled with policy & societal models that:

  • incentivise households to save towards a longer life expectancy
  • incentivise household savings towards the purchase and implementation of sustainable household infrastructure – renewable energy, lower carbon construction outcomes, reduced ecosystem service and impacts) that offsets living costs
  • offset household consumption on materially unsustainable goods or services that have a higher than desirable impact on ecosystem services or climate change.
  • incentivise the UK’s trading balance towards the growth in export of goods and services that promote a greener global economy, and
  • address the deep structural cracks that current economic policy will have on tomorrow’s economy.  It was a great model whilst you couldn’t see the forest for the trees, but now that the forest has been cleared to the size of a coppice we need some new economic ideas and practices.

If economic theory is logical, and political economic science rational – how can a society, such as the UK, develop more sustainable economic indicators, be encouraged to pursue these through more stable economic models and to promote household sustainably over  household materialism.   Where is the economic leadership that allows us to switch tracks from GDP Key Performance Indicators based on unsustainable consumerism to those more suited to the realities of the future?

Individuals and businesses are capable of great innovation but future recession beating policies must accept that you cannot enable sustainable development through mass consumption, and that household savings can ultimately contribute to societal sustainability.

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

Contact ross@leading-green.com

CLIMATE CHANGE – FACT OR FEELIE-FACT

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Fact or Feelie-Fact!

I was addressing a small group of SME business owners this week and we started to discuss the issue of climate change first as a potential business risk for some of their enterprises and supply changes, but also as an opportunity for some of them in how they looked at thier future strategic planning.

During the course of our discussion I was surprised by some of the questions that were asked by the business men and women, and I was reminded by a GP friend who often challenged her patients with the phrase when presented by a medical claim – “Is that a fact or a ‘feelie-fact’ (i.e. it feels like a fact)?”

So after jotting down questions, and a quick bit of research on various websites here is a quick trot through the some of the most asked questions – presented in TRUE or FALSE colours for facts and mythsFEELS .

THE CLIMATE IS ALWAYS CHANGING!

 True

There is natural variability in the Earth’s climate but the current state of climate change  we are experiencing is unusual as the is now a wealth of evidence that verifies it is not exclusively part of a natural cycle.

Natural factors which affect climate include volcanic eruptions, aerosols and phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña (which cause warming and cooling of the Pacific Ocean surface).  Natural climatic variations can lead to periods with little or no warming, both globally and regionally, and other periods with very rapid warming. However, there is an underlying trend of warming that is now almost certainly caused by Man’s activities.

THESE CHANGES ARE ALL DOWN TO THE SUN AND OTHER NATURAL FACTORS!

False

Many factors contribute to climate change.  Only when climate scientists have aggregated all these variable factors together can we explain the size and patterns of climate change that has occurred over the last 100 years or so.

Although it has been common for some people to ask whether the Sun and cosmic rays have been responsible for climate change, measured solar activity has shown no significant change in the last few decades and little evidence to back up this claim.  However there is sufficient evidence to show that global temperatures have continued to rise since the Industrial Revolution, suggesting strongly that the additional greenhouse gases that have been emitted since then have had about 10x the effect on climate as fluctuating changes in solar output.

Much of the relatively small climate variability over the last 1,000 years, before industrialisation, can be explained by changes in solar output and occasional cooling due to major volcanic eruptions. Since industrialisation, however, CO2 has increased significantly and we now know that man-made CO2 is the likely cause of most of the warming over the last 50 years.

CLIMATE SCIENTISTS DON’T REALLY AGREE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE

False

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree on the fundamentals of climate change — that climate change is happening and has recently been caused by increased greenhouse gases from human activities.

The core climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was written by 152 scientists from more than 30 countries and reviewed by more than 600 experts. It concluded that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in man-made greenhouse gas concentrations.

I once asked this question within the context of being astounded by the degree of unity between so many branches of science and scientific professions, especially within those  areas where they commonly fell out!  One of the IPCC experts who had reviewed the data put the answer this way to me:

“It is as if all the religious leaders in the world got together to discuss ‘Is there a God?”

A few days later they appear with a statement that says ‘Yes, there is a God….. and his name is Elvis!” 

 

IT’S POSSIBLE THAT THERE’S NO LINK BETWEEN TEMPERATURE RISE AND CO2

 False

Temperature and CO2 are linked. Studies of ice core layers taken within polar-ice show that in previous centuries and millenia, rises in temperature have been followed by an increase in CO2.  Now, it is a rise in CO2 that is causing the temperature to rise.

Concentrations of CO2 have increased by more than 35% since humanity’s industrialisation phase began, and they are now at their highest for at least 800,000 years.  When natural factors alone are considered, computer models do not reproduce the climate warming we now observe and record.  Only once man-made greenhouse gases are fed back into the equations and computer models do we recreate results that mirror what is happening today in the real world.

THE RECENT WARMING IS DUE TO THE GROWTH OF OUR TOWN AND CITIES

 False

No.  CO2 emissions are causing the climate to warm everywhere around the globe.  Temperatures in our cities are unnaturally high because of the warmth from heating building, heavy traffic, high concentrations of people and the effects of this heat being stored in our buildings, roads and concrete.

The UK Met Office’s observations come from urban and rural areas on land and from the sea, which covers 70% of the Earth.  The Met Office manages data from cities carefully to ensure they do not skew their understanding of climate change.

Changes to how we get and use energy will cost billions and throw millions out of work

False

There are costs to any change, but study after study shows the net effect of conservation, efficiency and less-polluting energy will be more local jobs, cheaper power, and savings in health and improved local air quality (especially in cities).  The costs of severe climate change effects, like catchment flooding and coastal erosion, will be far greater than working to reduce them.

Engineered Technology will solve the problem for us

False

Significant ‘fixes’, like removing CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, are very unlikely because they are not available now and are not an alternative to reducing emissions.

It’s already too late to stop climate change

True

Although some climate change effects are now unavoidable (and are already being experienced within some communities), recent evidence indicate that action needs to start now if we are to limit the peak of global emissions in the next decade and to start bringing a fall in emission levels to well below current levels to avoid some of the worst climate change scenarios.  This is still possible, and can be achieved by collective global action at governmental and societal level, using technologies that are available today.  Putting off action will make it harder and harder to achieve equilibrium, and more difficult and expensive to reduce emissions in future decades, as well as creating higher risks within society to severe climate change.

I can’t possibly make a difference

False

Globally, the three main contributors to greenhouse gas footprints are cars, coal and cows; and those are three areas in which our individual choices can make a future  difference.  Over 40 per cent of CO2 emissions in the UK come directly from central heating systems in our home and from our personal transport choices.

The recent IPCC report suggested that we need to look closely at our consumption of animal products, seeking to reduce them by at least 30%.  The decision to eat less meat and dairy products has been identified as having a bigger impact on greenhouse gas reduction than personally reducing airline flights or buying an electric car.  Beef production compared with peas results in six times more greenhouse gas emissions and the use of 36 times more land.  Reducing food waste is another area where consumer decisions can make a future positive impact on global warming as up  to 30% of food purchased can end up as food waste – the equivalent of throwing over 3 months food shopping into the bin each year!

There is no point in my country acting if other countries don’t!

False

Every reduction in emissions makes a global difference not a local difference by not contributing to risk.  Western countries, especially the US, UK and other European neighbours can make a positive contribution and set a positive example to the rest of the world – if the heavily energy dependent countries of the western world can rise to the challenge successfully, others will follow.   The average Chinese citizen still consumes only 10 to 15 per cent as much energy as the average US citizen, and in its latest renewables report the IEA states that it is China that will continue to dominate global renewable energy growth and that the country is likely to become the largest consumer of renewable energy (surpassing the EU by 2023).

Business as Usual

False

Moreover, there are good economic reasons for individuals, government and especially business leaders to take action now and act together.   The Stern Review, the UK Treasury’s comprehensive analysis of the economics of climate change, estimated that not taking action could cost from 5 to 20% of global GDP every year.  In comparison, reducing emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change could cost around 1% of global GDP each year.

 

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

 

Sources of information:

My thanks to the following website, some of whose content I have incorporated into the text.

IEAhttps://www.iea.org/publications/renewables2017/

 UK Met Office:  metoffice.gov.uk/climatechange/guide/quick/doubts.html.

UK Government (Act on CO2 website):  http://actonco2.direct.gov.uk/actonco2/home/climate-change-the-facts/Climate-change-myths-and-misconceptions.html.

New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431310-700-living-with-climate-change-you-can-make-a-difference/

Stern Report: www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sternreview_index.htm.

Climate UK:  http://climateuk.net/

Climate East Midlands:  http://www.climate-em.org.uk/

What Brexit teaches us about Leadership

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What is leadership?

There are a multitude of definitions out there concerning leadership, but basically it seems to boil down to the ability of an individual to influence and guide their followers in a specific direction.  In business and in other forms of life it will also involve making sound — and sometimes difficult — decisions, creating and articulating a clear vision of a future state, establishing achievable goals and providing followers with the knowledge and tools necessary to achieve those goals.

An effective leader will commonly possess the following characteristics: integrity, self-confidence, strong communication and management skills, creative and innovative thinking, perseverance in the face of failure, willingness to take risks, openness to change, level-headedness and reactive in times of crisis.

For those of us in the business world, individuals who exhibit these leadership qualities deserve to ascend to executive management, and many possess the characteristics of strong transformational leaders when facing the modern marketplace – where a leader works with teams to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a group.  Transformational leadership serves to enhance the motivation, morale and identity of their followers.

But Brexit has raised the question of what leadership means in today’s political culture when faced with leading significant social and cultural change, and whether our political systems have lost their ability to develop politicians who can really lead societies?

To help Mrs M, Mr C and all their colleagues here is a simple listing of leadership traits that many in business accept and understand as essential elements when leading others:

  1. Communication – what you say in public matters – you cannot criticize Europe and Brussels as bogeymen then turn around and ask for a ‘yes’ from the British people to stay in Europe

  2. Vision – When seeking to introduce a significant directional change, leaders need a clear vision, a belif in it, and a sense of purpose that others can follow.

  3. Leading Change – Change management programmes are inherently difficult and you need to be well prepared before proceeding down that route.

  4. Accountability – If you ask a manager to accomplish something, you don’t go off and work on Plan B before he reports back to you.

  5. Guarantees – If you make commitments (i.e. in your Manifesto) your shareholders and stakeholders will expect you to follow through on them.

  6. Trust – similarly lying to shareholders and stakeholders rapidly destroys trust and what they then hear afterwards they will distrust.

  7. Branding – No CEO should damage their organisation’s brand in the marketplace.

  8. Listening skills – The need to listen to the workforce is essential – ‘have I made my position very clear’ on this?

  9. Avoid ‘kitchen cabinet’ leadership – Leaders need the support of their teams, not a small subset of favoured advisers of the same mindset.

  10. Diversity and a mix of experience in the workplace builds strong team and generates options.

Why do they believe it is different in politics?

Strong well led organisations make their own destiny, and don’t become reliant on a single client or just one marketplace to survive in.

If the current state of Brexit teaches us anything, it is perhaps that the old models of political leadership are becoming redundant in today’s society and that today’s leaders have become visionless, unable to inspire us to follow them, and no longer have the right to be called ‘leaders’.

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