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

Leading from the Bottom Up

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Environmental Brief

From the top to the bottom of organisations we have a responsibility to get environmental and sustainability messages across to our colleagues.

One of the toughest environmental jobs to often get your voice heard is on building sites. Establishing presence, getting your voice heard and your messages across takes good communication & leadership skills.

Environmental management is more than just policies, regulations and legal compliance – its integral to good business and efficient working sites. Experienced officers understand that building a good working relationship with the rest of the team raises their profile, develops trust and allows opportunities to ratchet up performance.

When you perceive others leading because it is in their nature do so or they feel a vocational interest in the matter, then it is a leader’s job to encourage them in their work and efforts.

My thanks then to some South African colleagues who sent this through as a small example in the large lexicon of building site humour! (see picture above)

(previously posted as a Linked in article by Leading Green, May 2018)

Making the Business Case for Sustainability: Obtaining Top Management Support

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Making the Business Case for Sustainability (3) updated

Leading Green is delighted to announce a new Sustainability in Action leadership course for Environmental Management, EHS and Sustainability professionals.

Obtaining Top Management Support (a new 1 day course)

22 – 25 January 2019

Getting across the board buy-in for sustainability in organisations can be difficult.  Progressing strategic actions that create visibility for and awareness of sustainability, both inside and outside the organisation will require top management support.  When seeking to change an organisation’s sustainability culture, their support – which must also require their participation and involvement, may be the most important success factor before you start!

Top management support is the critical success factor when progressing a business sustainability agenda.

This one day course sets out a strategic pathway that aims to supports you

  • self-assess the degree to which a sustainability framework is embedded across  your organization, helping you understand your company’s progress, and
    where to prioritize your efforts (1/2 day).
  • The second half of the day sets out a toolbox of tips and tactics to help win support, participation and involvement from the CEO and senior leadership team,to identify opportunities to support your CEO’s journeys to embed sustainability, and to increase the visibility of for sustainability initiatives within your organisation.

The course focuses on your day-to-day activities and your organisations direction of travel.  It follows an established pathway, used successfully within several Business Schools and international organisations.  The course’s objective is to help you personally:

  • Advance your organisation further along the path from environmental management/EHS to sustainability
  • Self assess progress year on year
  • Introduce your sustainability agenda to senior management
  • Increased your corporate visibility
  • Align Sustainability with the Corporate Plan, and
  • Demonstrate value and win support.

The Courses will be held during the 22nd – 25th January 2019 in Birmingham (2 days); Sheffield (1 day) and Lincoln (1 day).

This 1 day course is designed to align with IEMA’s CPD requirements for environmental professionals, with elements of the course corresponding to requirements within IEMA’s Sustainability Skills Map.

For further information, delegate rates and details contact:  Ross Marshall at info@leading-green.com or view the Training page.

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Supporting Business Leaders implement Sustainability in Business

Ross Marshall has over 25 years experience of senior level Corporate Environmental Management & operational Sustainability within the Power, Water & Government Sectors.  He is involved in the accreditation of environmental professionals for IEMA.

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