I sat nervously in the anteroom, waiting for a colleague who had set up this presentation to a meeting of senior managers on one of the big chemicals sites on Teesside. I was there to sell the concept of industrial symbiosis to them - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - as I'd secured funding to run an IS project in the Tees Valley. This was the first environmental project that I had ever conceived and got running myself, it was a big one, I was very excited about it and the nerves were starting to show.
My colleague, who had decades of experience in the industry and a fantastic network, had been coaching me on what to say and what not to say, inadvertently ramping up the pressure. But he wasn't there.
So I went in alone. I did my pitch. At the end I asked "So who wants to get involved?"
Eventually the chair cleared his throat. "You've given us plenty of food for thought. We'd be very interested in the results of your study."
"It's not a study!" I protested "I need your companies to take part."
More silence. I played my final card. "I'll leave this box at the back of the room, please put your card in it if you want to join in."
When I collected the box the next day it was empty.
My colleague, who had simply forgotten about the meeting, got some feedback from the managers. He said I'd done a good job, that I had piqued their interest, but "they're very busy people."
A couple of months later we launched the project. We got a high profile keynote speaker, some good industrialists giving case studies, but crucially, we then switched to a workshop format and got people generating ideas of how their business could get involved. There was a palpable buzz in the room and we got dozens of companies signed up. Amongst them was one of the senior managers from that first, fruitless presentation - he became the project's biggest industrial champion and helped drive it to great success.
That was my first lesson in gaining commitment. If you simply explain what you want to do and ask people if they approve, you'll get murmurs of assent, but no real buy-in. As soon as you get people actively involved in developing the project they feel they have 'skin in the game' - a little part of the of project becomes theirs - they will share in any success and share in any failure.
It's the same with, say, a corporation's sustainability strategy. If present a strategy you have prepared in a vacuum to the board and ask for approval, all you will get is people trying to dilute the actions to minimise their exposure. If you get the board involved in pinning down the basics at the start of the process, you will get a much more enthusiastic response. They will have skin in the game.