Get me some sustainability!

”Get me some sustainability!" 
That’s what the CEO asked when I recently worked with Nourit, a mid-size company in the European food industry. Nourit’s customers wanted them to ‘be more sustainable’. So the CEO wanted a sustainability programme – “but nothing complicated” he said.

To keep buy-in high, the Environment manager pulled together a small cross-functional team. We identified the key areas, the easiest-to-handle actions. And we developed a plan.

Coming out of the meeting the energy was high.

But at the next meeting several months later, nothing had happened.

When nothing happens
It's usually not absolutely nothing: In this case the environment manager kept working with the team to explain the programme, and request information.

And after the requests came the reminders. And reminders after that... 
But nothing came back.


Same thing a few months after that.

What was up?

We had hit the four phases of adolescence.

Phase 1: The Silent Treatment
It starts with the Silent Treatment: Ignore requests, wait things out, and hope "it" will go away. Nobody says no.

They just don't do it.

The team pulled in the heavy guns. Senior management sent out memos.

The functions grudgingly took note.

Phase 2: Argue every detail
But that didn't really help because now we met the "dissect every request" phase. And every dissection was sent back to the team, but with every one the sender could think of on copy e.g.

"What if a technical service representative from another company comes and discards their newspaper at our plant - does that count as manufacturing waste?"

cc heads of operations; manufacturing; procurement...

The discussion in the company started to be about "why is the team so demanding" and there were rumblings about how burdensome sustainability was.

The team redoubled its efforts to keep management on board, and staff informed.

Phase 3: Make you provide all the energy 
But now managers felt more threatened because change felt closer. So they implemented their variants on Work to Rule - the strategy used by organised labour to bring companies to their knees: do only what they are explicitly told to do.

The team persisted. They gave good stories high visibility, including the company magazine. It became more fun to join than resist.

The final phase - 4: Take the credit
And then suddenly - all the people who had been blocking the programme now claimed it was their idea. And they even asked why there needed to be a sustainability team when they were the ones doing the work...

When you're responsible for CSR or sustainability or environment, however your company calls it, each of these phases can feel difficult. But the last one can feel the most difficult of all. Shouldn't this be the moment where somebody thanks you - for driving this forward, helping the company overcome every hurdle, spending so much energy, and for listening to them and trying to meet their needs?

It should be.

But it may not be.

What does this have to do with making sustainability profitable? 

If you let yourself get down, feeling it's unfair, you'll burn out - and nothing more will happen. Worse - you'll have let the forces of resistance and inertia win.

On the other hand, if you manage yourself effectively, you can use others' success to boost your morale, and boost your standing in the company.

What should you do? 
Share the Halo: Make their success your success – and your success their success. When they do something good, make sure it gets publicised. Get quoted about the good work they’ve done, and name them. They’ll love you for it – and you’ll still be seen as having ownership.

Get Exposure: Raise your profile internally and externally – use the learnings from your projects by submitting articles, giving presentations at conferences, and making your company look good. The better the company looks, the brighter your star will shine.

That’s what Nourit’s environmental manager did – work not only on performance, but on image and exposure too. His company started to get good press, which helped him get more done. And it also put him in touch with other environmental managers – so he could share experiences.

You are not alone
There are many in your shoes and many who find it a lonely and thankless task. Just remember, you’re taking your company through adolescence. Over 4 billion parents know exactly how you feel...

** Nourit is a fictitious name I made up to protect the innocent, and the others.