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

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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

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.