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2 June 2017

The one question you need to ask of every Sustainability project

Terra Infirma Sustainability Coaching

I was down in Manchester yesterday for a session with a client I haven't worked with for years. They had called me in 'to pick my brains' about employee engagement. In the past I've found such requests a bit of a double-edged sword – on one hand it is great to get paid to share your knowledge, experiences and opinions, but on the other you can leave them with a whole load of exciting sounding but abstract ideas and no way forward.

To avoid the latter, I structure such engagements like a coaching session. I start by asking them the killer question – to define the ideal solution looking forward. "If this is 100% successful, in 5 years' time what will it look like?"

That might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who start with a process rather than an objective. That's a bit like a DIY enthusiast grabbing the first tool in their toolbox and using it no matter what the task entails. You don't want to be wiring a plug with a lump hammer.

The answer to this question sets the direction of everything else in the discussion. Not does it point us in the right direction, but, psychologically, it makes the journey feel much more achievable. When we look at the present day opportunities and threats, we get more of the former and the latter seem much less ominous. Throughout yesterday's session I repeatedly referred back to the ideal solution.

Planning the route is where I break with the strictest form of coaching, as I make recommendations from my experience working across a wide range of businesses from a crazy golf course (honestly!) to multinational aerospace companies. Coaching purists will be sucking through their teeth at that, but I give a series of options and recommend the one I think is best for the client. This makes sure they still have ownership over the agreed way forward.

But the key to success is really pinning down that 'ideal solution', even when, like yesterday, the client had put some thought to it already. Whether I'm asking that question of a group of stakeholders to define the outcome of a Sustainability Strategy during a backcasting session, or of an individual client on a 1-2-1 coaching session, getting the desired outcome pinned down will increase the chances of success many times over.


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6 January 2017

The Importance of Sustainability Conversations in 2017


Happy New(-ish) Year from Terra Infirma!

I write this from a ward of Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary after surgery on the little finger upon which I cleverly landed when out running/dancing-on-ice exactly a year ago. Not the most auspicious start to the year, but the enforced time out is giving me a chance to reflect on the last year or two and plan the year ahead.

One thing I have concluded is that our non-project delivery mechanisms often deliver much more value to our clients than the traditional consultancy project. A project is tightly defined and the client gets what they asked for. But in Sustainability it is often the stuff that people don't know that they don't know where major breakthroughs lie – those crucial issues take conversation to uncover, not phases and milestones and deliverables.

We have three main non-project delivery mechanisms (in increasing level of conversation richness):

But shameless plugs aside, with whom are you going to (or do you need to) have conversations about Sustainability in 2017? Is it everybody, or, more likely, key influencers? How will you start that conversation? What language will you use? What format will it take? And how will you work with the results?

And, as that last paragraph demonstrates, one of the best ways to kick off a conversation is with a question.

Here's to a successful and more sustainable 2017, full of rich conversation!


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6 July 2016

Get a new perspective on Sustainability


Have you ever noticed how much you notice when you are on holiday? Wander around a strange place and details leap out at you in a way they never do in your home town. There's a whole genre of travel writing based on such observations, but you rarely, if ever, get anyone writing in such detail about their own neighbourhood (Xavier de Maistre famously wrote Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre to parody travel writing). Familiarity closes our minds, travel broadens them.

I was reminded of this when a client recently told me it was great to get a fresh pair of eyes (mine!) in to sort out a couple of sticking points in his corporation's sustainability strategy. One of the most important things an outsider can do, as I did in this case, is question implicit assumptions – the way your mind closes down options subconsciously. I now do more coaching and facilitation than traditional 'clipboard consulting' as this broadening of the mind can make an order of magnitude greater impact than a report of recommendations gathering dust on somebody's shelf.

How are you going to get yourself out of your comfort zone today?


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15 October 2014

Horses for (Sustainability) Courses

Gareth KaneIn my executive coaching, I try to adhere to the Socratic/pull model where you guide the coachee along with a series of searching questions. The idea is they get to work through the problem themselves, getting a deeper understanding, and they're more likely to implement the resulting ideas - just in the same way I use workshops in place of traditional 'clipboard' consulting.

This patient approach is against my nature, which is to jump in with advice before the other person has stopped talking. It takes quite a bit of discipline not to butt in all the time.

But with one coaching client, I have to drop this approach and push advice. This particular business owner wants to bounce ideas off me, talk through what is and isn't working and ask me what I would do in certain circumstances. If I suggest something to him, he'll roll it around in his head and work out how to make it work for him in practice.

I'm the opposite - despite my enthusiasm for giving advice, I'm not that great at taking it. I had a consulting coach for a year and while I valued his advice, I always felt he was trying to corral me in particular direction rather than let me think things through. I spent most of my time telling him why his advice wouldn't work for me, which wasn't very productive.

At the end of the day it doesn't matter which approach is 'better' - or worse 'right' (although I find for most people the pull approach works best and so it's my default). What really matters is doing what is best for your audience - Green Jujitsu in other words. It takes humility to work to their preferred way of learning rather than your favoured methodology.

And that's my advice.



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16 September 2009

New! Executive Coaching Service (with Free Trial)

Are you responsible for delivering sustainability in your organisation? Are you finding it difficult to get momentum started? Do you feel lonely, frustrated and unappreciated?

Our coaching programme will give you the support you lack by providing a sounding board, helping you set personal targets to improve your performance and providing you with a smorgasbord of hints, tips and techniques to overcome your particular problems.

For a one-off annual fee, you will receive a personal one-to-one coaching session by telephone every month, but you can contact your coach at anytime by phone or e-mail should the occasion arise, subject only to availability. This is an extremely cost-effective way of benefiting from our skills and experience without having to fashion a project to justify it. The constant reinforcement of learning and reflection on past performance is much more effective than attending a simple training course.

Even better, we're offering a free trial session:

1. E-mail your details to with three times during UK office hours on different days when you will be available for 45 minutes.

2. We will contact you to confirm one of those times or suggest another.

Please note this service is aimed at those with a genuine business need and we retain the right to discretion over who can participate in the trial.

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