(5 minute read) Sustainability strategies require significant buy-in from colleagues. Internal engagement is key to getting buy-in and support for initiatives and yet it is one of the hardest challenges a sustainability professional can face.
If you are an environment manager, or a CSR manager, or any of the other myriad titles that are applied to sustainability professionals (from now on I will refer to you as a ‘sustainability manager’), you will likely be familiar with the following scenario:
Often, sustainability is treated as something to be passed down to. What I mean by that is that the sustainability manager has a lot of pressure coming down from the top (or all around them), but comparatively little influence, budget or support. You may get support from your amazing reception and admin teams, and you may even have some green champions – volunteers who are involved because they care about it. Those champions, of course, have a day job to be getting on with and, depending on their managers, may have very little time to dedicate to “helping you do your job” (which can be the perception of the champions network).
In order to change the perception…
We, as sustainability professionals, know that all the work we put in to our sustainability roles is not just about our jobs. Instead, it is about helping our respective organisations thrive through implementing sustainability principles.
How, then, can we change the perception of others in our organisation so that they value the input of the sustainability manager? It comes down to language and messaging. Sustainability managers, like everyone else in the organisation, are working towards a central business strategy.
The sustainability manager is equally as responsible for achieving that business strategy as the other departments. This drives a more circular and collaborative effort, whereby the sustainability manager works in collaboration with the other departments to achieve their goals.
Sustainability, when implemented well, has the ability to help each and every department in your organisation in achieving their own goals in the most efficient way, driving beneficial impacts on the environment and communities, and reducing negative impacts. Internal engagement is key to delivering any sustainability plan or strategy.
…you must first change the language
Quite rightly, each department in your organisation is working to achieve their own targets. As such, anything that is perceived to detract, or distract, from that is a threat to the smooth running of their operations.
This means that sustainability managers need to speak everyone else’s language in order to deliver on their own obligations. We are often mistaken for a reporting function and yet we have no control or direct influence over the issues we are reporting against. Instead, we are actually a facilitator. How can you, as a sustainability manager, facilitate sustainable changes in the business? Chances are, if you can convince even one or two senior decision-makers that you are adding value to the organisation, then you will have significantly more support for future initiatives.
But how to do that? Well, it comes down to helping others in their roles. Our role is unique in that it genuinely spans every department. For example:
Do you have significant sick days or absenteeism in the business? Could flexible working help with that, and help you drive down operational costs and impacts in the process? A sustainability manager may not be able to effect much change in this area but the HR manager and operations manager probably could – are you able to work with them to collect data and research solutions?
Revenue and profits
What is your brand manager worried about? how about the sales director, the business development manager, or the finance director? Can the application of a ‘sustainability lens’ help to solve some of those problems? It could be in winning tenders, or in outcompeting your peers in the market, or simply in providing some good news stories for the brand manager to work with.
This is the obvious one, but have you considered procurement and purchasing risk? How about identifying climate risks in the supply chain? Or brand risk in purchasing decisions? All things that we as sustainability professionals are aware of, but can you facilitate a meeting between your brand manager, your business development manager and your procurement manager to identify risks and opportunities in purchasing and procurement, in the context of the business brand and business development opportunities?
Know the personalities
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the green champions. If you’re lucky enough to have a champions network, your champions are an amazing resource – and a key consideration you need to take into account is the different types of people that make up the network.
Innocent drinks have identified the different types of personalities that they look for when implementing their sustainability approach:
Often, the people joining green champions networks are ‘agitators’ – the ideas people, the creative people. They do not always have the influence, or the ability, to ‘get stuff done’. How can you attract the other types of personalities to the table? And how can you ensure that there is not a disproportionate obligation on just one or two members of the group?
With a champions network, the bulk of the obligations can often fall to the sustainability manager to actually implement, even though the budget holder or other relevant decision-maker for that aspect might sit in an entirely different department. That disconnect is what makes sustainability seem like a difficult sell at points. Changing the make-up of your network, or finding other personality types to support the network, can help in spreading the actions more equitably.
This can seem overwhelming, and you will note that the bulk of the obligation sits on the sustainability manager’s shoulders to change the way that they do things. However, implementing this internal engagement approach can ensure that you feel less isolated and become a more centralised, and valued, part of your business. Once that happens, the task doesn’t feel nearly as overwhelming and can help to drive sustainability faster than you might think.
Three key steps to consider in the course of your job are:
- How can you use your role to help tackle some of the issues you see in your organisation?
- Learning about the concerns of colleagues will go a long way towards understanding how to communicate CSR / environmental / sustainability issues in a way that chimes with them
- Once you can communicate in a way that chimes with them, you are more likely to obtain support for strategic initiatives – even better if you can get someone else to champion it
The good news is that this is a relatively simple switch. Once you get to know the different personalities in your organisation, and their respective drivers and obligations, the answers can sometimes seem obvious. Sustainability managers are, by necessity, systems thinkers. We often see solutions that others do not, and our role is to help our colleagues see those solutions and run with them. The great news is that, in helping others to do their jobs, your role will gain support and influence, helping to drive sustainability in your organisation further, faster and more effectively.
I am a sustainability coach with 10 years experience in the sustainability sector. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how I can help you integrate sustainability into your organisation.