Why I am tired of the statement ‘Our people are our greatest asset’

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People like plants need more than a basic environment in which to thrive

(2 minute read)

As soon as I see this statement in CSR reports, on websites and in marketing statements, I immediately dig deeper and look for positive proof that the statement can be backed up. I am often disappointed!

This phrase is at risk of becoming a modern day cliché, and any CEO tempted to use it should ensure that they have satisfied themselves:- firstly that the organisation has put a bit more thought behind the phrase than just good PR, and secondly that they personally have an understanding of organisational reality at shop floor or operational level.  In fact I often recommend to organisational leaders that they leave the safety and power-interactions in the C-suite and spend time regularly engaging with the workforce …… in listening mode!. Go out and listen to what they are saying, it can be tough but rewarding. Why? because it is common for less than 20% of a workforce to feel ‘engaged’ with the organisation and its existing leadership group.

Whilst it is without question important for employee’s to ‘hear’ a CEO express such a statement, it means nothing unless they ‘feel’ it in their employment or more importantly ‘know’ it in their interactions with their leaders and managers.  That’s the true route to having an engaged workforce. 

Sustainability means different things in different market sectors, but employee relationships are common to all businesses, and the way in which an employee feels they re ‘valued’ is not just a financial relationship. It can involve many tangible and intangible factors – the organisational culture, how the organisation aligns with their own beliefs and values, and the manner in which the business treats them and wider society – especially in the knowledge based or innovation driven employment sectors! This often determines whether the intangible factors of their goodwill, support, loyalty and ultimately presence are sustained or lost.

An active leadership approach to sustainability within organisations helps employees engage better with the organisation and to feel alignment with it. The best way to demonstrate ‘value’ (rather than state they are valued assets) is to explain directly how the work they are doing is appreciated and important to the business. Take time to research how their contribution fits into the larger picture, and by investing in their growth, engagement and satisfaction.

Reflection point: Do your employees ‘know’ and ‘feel’ your organisation’s core values, and are they aligned with your sustainability objectives?

 At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business training & 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. 1

8 Tips for New Sustainability Managers – The First Week, Month and 90 Days

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Your first few days in a new job are always daunting, especially when you have been recruited to develop the existing culture towards greater sustainability by enacting a change in the organisation towards a business model that will be new, challenging and will need even the most obstructive manager to change pathways.

One of the first major environmental roles I took on was withina large Scotttish Power Utility with growing interests in England, the US and in the water utility sector.  They had decided to recruit a new environmental team to support organisational and operational activities within thier Technology Division.  The interview to say the least had been a strange experience, as for over an hour they asked few questions but talking directly at me listing issues they now recognised to be threats to the business. I nodded and looked wise, but was rarely asked how I would seek to handle them if employed. There was clearly no predetermined job description, role or even defined set of environmental accountabilities for the team they were seeking to recruit.  There was no compelling company vision for the environment and we were unlikely to receive any further advice from the senior executive in charge of us.  His instructions on our first day were simply ‘Go and do something Environmental!’

Well we certainly achieved that, with ScottishPower becoming the first UK utility to gain ISO 14001 subsequently in both Scotland and England, winning numerous CSR awards and developing a strategic approach to environmental impact assessment that is still a successful model 30 years later.

Yes, the first few days are incredibly stressful and daunting for the newly hired sustainability manager, especially when joining a business with little organisational maturity or leadership in that area, or with an undefined sense of what it is seeking to achieve through your employment – resource management, regulatory safeguarding, risk governance or a solid platform for future sustainable growth and value.  You have the knowledge, but how are you going to get started applying your talents is the first order of the day. 

So here are a few simple tips that I wish I had received back then to get me started as quickly as possible.   You have the skills for the role, your mission within the first few weeks is to start integrating and embedding yourself in the organisation and within the awareness of its key players.  Start to make friends and allies, ask questions and understand the mood within which strategic decisions are made, and what issues will be receptive targets for your audiences.

Week 1 – Show your face – Talk to everyone and Listen!

1 Learn the company’s language.

Talk to the organisations employees in a style and manner that resonates with them.

2 Get your hands dirty.

Spend your first few days in the office getting acquainted and being available to meet others. As soon as you can, get out into the field, factory, other locations and experience how the organisation is implementing its CSR and environmental policies. Is there a vision or mission statement – is it a living reality of just ‘greenwash’?

3 Meet with the crucial internal staff as soon as possible.

Arrange informal conversations with the key managers and staff whose support and influence will be critical in delivering any future initiative.  These are best arranged within the first few weeks into the job. 

Listen, listen, listen whilst gauging how positive or negative they are about how your role can improve business growth, values or risk management internally.  Are these allies or blockers:

  • what ssues currently are of concern to them;
  • what will they be minded supporting;
  • what advice can they provide re threats and opportunities, market trends: etc.†

Month 1 – Establish your personal credentials, start to prioritise your findings and develop your future strategies.

4  Don’t be critical of your predecessors

As a new leader or manager learns more about the way an organisation thinks, functions or behaves, there will inevitably be surprises.  No matter how strong the urge to question previous policy, initiatives, etc resist the urge to say anything negative about the previous managers who have sought to implement environmental or sustainability systems.  It will be some time before you identify who has done what, and who their internal friends, allies and supporters are.  It is simpler just to be positive about the efforts you encounter (which will have been supported by others internally) as the critical building blocks for your own changes that will arise latter. 

5  Know your own weaknesses before criticising the organisations. 

Seek to identify where your strengths lie and where personal development, training or mentoring/coaching is still needed to enhance your effectiveness in the new role.  At the interview you may have promised the earth, those impressions are what you were recruited on and now is the time to reinforce and build up your leadership traits, understanding and in particular – change management skills

6   Prioritise and align

Prioritise what you uncover in terms of tangible business benefit and value, rather than intangible environmental risk.  In prioritising what needs to be done, be realistic about what is and isn’t achievable, and consider how they can align with the corporate plan (and its planning cycle) and seek advise on how to incorporate your future agendas into the planning cycle.

 Who can you turn to for support— perhaps an internal mentor, other senior managers or even the chairman of the board?  Don’t try to do it all on your own – that is a weakness! 

90 Days in – Start setting out your personal vision and ideas for alignment, growth and value through sustainability

7   Build a diverse circle of advisers.

New leaders in any organisation need to surround themselves with a variety of viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments as they build up a mental template of how the cogs and wheels of the organisation turn – and at what speed.  This is critical as your role will often require more in the way of advocacy instead of ‘power’.

Help develop ideas, strategies and approached through the use of these networks. Seeking to win thier support and patronage if matters have to be referred upwards to other executives, or brought into operational activities if beneficial changes can be enacted quickly by mutual agreement with other managers.

8   Have a Personal Vision

Seek to rapidly acquire a vision of what you want to happen, building this up from the solid foundation of ‘viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments’.  You must own the vision and inspire others.  Sustainability visions developed by committee tend towards aspirational and consensual, yours must be viewed and admired for being results orientated!

When building a visison, one tip is to start with the end in mind, by making the future direction of travel clearly outcome focussed – others can rapidly acquire a fully understanding, help guide strategic planning approaches and join in thier voices in nspiring & directing others in the organisations realignment towards greater sustainability.

Getting started is hard work, no wonder they say it takes an employee 3 years to understand how an organisation operates and thinks. Leading Green‘s coaching and mentoring services can provide essential support as you build up the confidence to start changing an organisation’s culture towards greater sustainability performance and social responsibility.

Should I Leave a Company that doesn’t reflect my Ethical or Sustainability Values?

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There are times in all careers when you have to ask yourself should I move on and find a new employer?

An organization full of employees who believe they belong is an organization full of employees who feel purposeful, inspired and alive — in other words, engaged. These engaged employees are more productive and better performers.

Many organisations are seeking to integrate environmental compliance and management processes into their ways of working, and several are attempting to drive sustainability into their cultural DNA!  To achieve this, they are enlisting a new group of employees – the environmental or sustainability specialist – as change managers.  Many are having spectacular success in altering the organisational beliefs, ways of working and the mindset of their organisations.  In the course of which they deliver a new lease of commercial life in their sectors and marketplace, but others are failing as they become dispirited with entrenched leadership attitudes, lack of accountability and on occasion evidence of organisational acceptance of illegal or unethical practices.

No company is perfect and on many occasions the change management activities that are required to embed sustainability issues and thinking into organisations can feel like draining the Atlantic Ocean with just a recycled Starbucks coffee cup for help!  That is why I was surprised in one recent mentoring session on how dismayed a young sustainability adviser was with her career choice. 

No one said entering the environmental profession would be an easy one or a free pass to career success.  You are after all trying to bring in a new mindset into business before the traditional mindset impacts too severely on the lives and prosperity of people and their environments!  The challenge and the excitement of the role and ultimately why you are here in these positions are why most of us get out of bed each morning. 

We analysed some of the problems she faced and then took them apart to examine the specific issues that were causing her so much grief in detail:

  • Some were clearly based around her lack of experience and could be rectified through training and development coaching;
  • Some were based simply around her lack of misunderstanding of how the industry operated and could be rectified through the identification of a suitable internal mentor to be a guide and someone she could bounce her future ideas off in advance, and
  • In one scenario it was clear that she had mis-communicated badly her case to a group of managers.  She had used technical jargon familiar to sustainability professionals but new to the audience and lost them.  She hadn’t aligned her case close enough to corporate outcomes to interest them and as a result had made an unpersuasive argument for change.  These again could be rectified through further coaching and mentoring.

But in a couple of situations the issues were clear and the challenges she faced significant.  Despite her best endeavours, there were several key sustainability issues where she felt that her efforts were being purposely disregarded, where the context of sustainability claims were being manipulated for greenwashing/marketing purposes without organisational evidence.  Whilst these indicated a lack of responsible leadership or management in those above her, ultimately our conversation had to address a cruel set of question that only she could answer:  

  • Had her contribution as an employee hit a rough patch on these issues that she could work through with time and support?
  • Could she live with the unethical or non-environmental behaviours and with time correct them?
  • Had she reached a performance plateau in how far she could take this company in terms of her own sustainability vision against the willingness of the people within the organisation to change?
  • Was she still excited by the role – or was it time for someone else to take up the reins and try it their way?
  • Should she move on and find a new employer?
Should I stay or should I go now?

Ethics and strong values underline an environmental or sustainability professional’s career choice.  Many of us remain optimistic and holds an altruistic view on how business can work in economic and social partnership with the rest of society for the economic betterment of all.  Your work is integral, not only to how you see the world, but how your chosen sector or employer actively improves their environmental or sustainability performance into the future as core business strategy.

So, when your employer makes headlines for the wrong environmental reasons or continues to act in an unsustainable manner contradicting its stated polies should you look for a new role with a new employer?  To figure that out, you need to closely examine your emotional relationship with your work and with your employer:

  • Do your employers continue to act in the knowledge of the social and environmental impacts they are accountable for?
  • Where is the redline before they will seek to correct the issue?
  • If the issue blows up due to regulatory or negative publicity, will you be innocent of any wrongdoing or culpability?

Dependent on your answers you may not need to leave, many companies weather small environmental scandals and they are often a golden opportunity to enhance changes in behaviour – simply put don’t waste a crisis but be aware of how such situations could damage your reputation.  

At the end of the day and to repeat the starting paragraph – An organization full of employees who believe they belong is an organization full of employees who feel purposeful, inspired and alive — in other words, engaged. And these engaged employees are more productive and better performers.  

Ultimately you must consider your own job satisfaction, your well-being, career prospects and future development if you stay.  If the company’s actions (or inactions) violate your moral and professional code of conduct, then you may need to take a professional stand and move on.

If you do decide to leave, be ready to answer the obvious question ‘Why did you leave your last employer’ from the next HR or recruiting manager.  Prepare an answer in advance that acknowledges the organisational risks you identified, the actions you sought to take for that organisation’s benefit, how you personally felt your values and ethics were being compromised by the management responses received and seek to distances yourself from their behaviours.  Turn it back on the recruiter as a first step in what sort of professional they are hiring – How would this company deal with such an issue?  It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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. In addition we provide a confidential mentoring and coaching services to new and experienced professionals seeking to enhance thier performance and skill sets.

Innovation is at the heart of Sustainability

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There are some great media stories out there extolling the steps that a company or brand has taken to minimise single plastic usage.  Some are small scale in their impact, but others will have a significant impact on plastic usage, amounta leaving via the factory gate, and its potential after consumer use to enter the environment as waste.  These are great stories and actions that hopefully will become ‘business as normal’ in the future!

One element that has fascinated me, during all this, is the range of alternative solutions and strategies that have emerged.  The challenge of reducing single use plastics has obviously released a lot of innovative thinking within these organisations. 

So, why had no-one released this innovation earlier? Why had it taken these organisations so long to wake up to the possibility of reducing plastic usage within their systems?

A key business driver for sustainability is challenging and changing established practices or beliefs that this is the only way to conduct a business, drive a process or use a material.  Sustainability leadership has at its core the need to ask questions that nobody at first can answer and to stimulate answers to problems nobody had questioned.   It is closely integrated with innovation, and when practiced as a business tool stimulates innovation internally or across supply chain partnerships.

So why don’t business harness and seek to create opportunities to release this inherent innovation more often within their organisations.  The answer I feel is that sometimes they don’t realise it is there or that it is centred in distinct parts of an organisation that has ‘defined innovation’ areas. 

What is important to me within these single use plastics initiatives is that the innovation probably arose internally through debate within a wider pool of employees than normal, it probably brought different players into contact and required organisational silos to interact and work more closely together.  Sustainability issues are notable for being trans-organisational – that is what makes a sustainability managers life so difficult at times. 

But look at the outcome of this innovation.  The internal workforce has been presented with a challenge or has sought to solve an inherent risk by coming forward with solutions.  This has probably had a positive impact on those involved, a clear sense that they are ‘doing good’ in terms of aligning their values with how they want to behave, a reinforcement of how they expect their employers to behave, and externally how customers and society feel they should behave.  In bringing this forward thier innovative solutions into the marketplace they will have been supported by the businesses’ leadership group, and everyone is feeling good about themselves.  An ideal ‘I Win – You Win – We Win‘ scenario that has then pounced upon by PR and Marketing teams as a positive story to take out into the marketplace.

The next step I hope is that these initiatives reveal potential cost savings and data on how much plastic usage has been offset from environmental escape.  I would also like to know how many Environmental Management Systems had paid previous attention internally to plastic usage and how many had ignored their external impact altogether…. perhaps for another blog!

What I do want to conclude on, is that here is a clear example of how seeking to enact sustainable solutions can galvanise organisational innovation and bring forward new initiative to take out into the marketplace.  They were faced with an uncomfortable truth over their products association with single use plastics, they thought about it and took positive action and the marketplace welcomes their innovation.  Becoming more sustainable hasn’t rocked the boat, hasn’t caused investors to man the life rafts and no one has dies of leadership shock by taking a risk in changing direction.  In contrast the staff are feeling good about themselves, their company and what they have achieved. Internally the initiative has probably brought new internal; teams together to solve a challenge and has given these companies a great story to add to their brand and marketplace communications. 

So, my Big Question is: Why aren’t organisational leaders utilising sustainability more as a business driver to challenging their staff to achieve further sustainability outcomes if the outcomes can only be beneficial?

The issue of plastic waste isn’t new.  The five oceanic gyres hadn’t developed overnight, and environmentalists have been raising concerns about Man’s plastic usage and the environment for years.  So why has it taken so long for action to permeate the strategic tiers of businesses?

Sustainability has the potential to galvanise innovation within and across businesses, it provides a positive culture for business expansion and a repositioning of brands within the marketplace.   

So, business leaders try setting a sustainability challenge to your organisation, a problem that needs to be solved or a resource that needs to be reduced.  Something that can deliver a reputational boost to the brand and that attracts consumer attention, but most of all something that stimulates innovation across the organisations

If you want innovation, give sustainability a try!

Leading Green offer a range of ‘brainstorming’ workshops for leadership teams and wider organisational groups, helping them address and focus on sustainability issues, priorities and future pathways. Contact ross@leading-green.com to see if we can help your organisational needs.

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.