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!
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.