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26 August 2014

Leadership is (still) THE key factor in Sustainability

Green Executive coverFour years on, I'm back in the Yorkshire holiday 'cottage' - actually a 3.5 bedroom stone house - where I beat my second book, The Green Executive, into shape. It's lovely to be back in such an important location to me, even though the leather recliner and ottoman upon which much of the work was done has sadly gone.

I write in a very non-linear style. Once I have a theme, I start by sketching a structure to lay out the overall framework. Then I copy and paste all my previous musings on each topic (from this blog and elsewhere) into that structure. Then I start on an epic cycle of filling in the big obvious gaps (some of that text can appear back on this blog!) and editing the recycled text so it is fresh, up to date and coherent with the new text.

This cycle continues until I get to the tipping point - the critical read-through and edit after which only superficial changes are required to ease the passage of the reader from introduction to conclusions, along with the odd minor fact sourcing. It was here in Croft House, Askrigg where I did that crucial edit for the Green Executive - it only took me two weeks of early morning sessions!

Anyway, the central theorem of The Green Executive is that Leadership is the difference between those who dabble in sustainability and those who really succeed. How does that argument stand up four years down the line?

Well, perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was the survey of challenges faced by sustainability practitioners by the 2degrees network. The No1 challenge? (drum roll...)

Engaging senior management.

In other words, lack of leadership is what most practitioners think is the factor holding them back. Why is this important?

Because without proper leadership, no significant change will happen in the organisation. That's what leadership is for - to set the strategic direction in the business. So, yes, without buy-in you might persuade someone to specify a much more efficient boiler or trial electric vehicles in the fleet, but the really big stuff - exploiting business opportunities in the low carbon economy, deleting product lines which are intrinsically unsustainable and/or investing in a supply chain to provide recycled material at a competitive quality, quantity and price - all that just won't happen.

And all too often, in my experience, sustainability gets stuck at the middle management level because no-one at the leadership level wants to pick up the baton and run with it.

The Green Executive still sells moderately well (ie at all) for a specialised business book, but I await the day it shoots up the charts as maybe that will be the sign that the penny has finally dropped!

 

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6 August 2014

Ask Gareth: 5 Steps to Make Sustainability 'The New Normal'

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I set out the 5 things you really need to do to make sustainability 'the new normal' in your organisation.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.

 

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25 June 2014

What we can learn from Greenpeace's flying farrago...

epicfailIt is usually politicians who are brought down by preaching one thing and then being found to be practising quite the opposite. But now it is another of our moral guardians which has been found wanting - Greenpeace have admitted one of their directors, Pascal Husting, regularly commutes by air from his home in Luxembourg to the NGO's HQ in Amsterdam.

Husting's defence - that he has a young family, the train journey is a 12 hour round trip, and that the arrangement was only meant to be temporary - would stand up for anybody other than a senior staffer of an organisation which has campaigned fiercely against air travel.

While I respect Greenpeace and their aims, I've always been uncomfortable with that NGO tendency to preach at those who 'don't get it'. And, if you are going to make environmental protection a moral issue, then you cannot, and must not, live a high-carbon lifestyle out of convenience - because that's exactly what you are criticising others for doing.

It all comes down to authenticity - being what you say you are. If you are going to lead on sustainability, whether in an organisation or in public life, then you must be seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Set the standard for everyone and stick to it yourself, because people believe what they see, not what they read.

The coda is that a chastened Husting is now taking the train.

 

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20 June 2014

My Generation (or the next...)?

Happy friends

I was speaking to a senior manager from a major company last week, a gent of a certain age on the brink of retirement, and I asked when he thought sustainability would be truly mainstreamed. And his reply?

"When your generation is in charge."

Scary thing is, it already is. Many of the most powerful in our country are my age or thereabouts. And many aren't covering themselves in glory, are they George Osborne?

Maybe the Millenials, who don't know life without kerbside recycling, will make the leap. Or my kids generation where hybrids, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels are perfectly normal, or...

 

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9 June 2014

Stay Hungry...

In Steve Jobs' legendary commencement speech to Stanford University students (above), he signed off with a maxim he first read in the proto-sustainability bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue, namely "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish."

In other words, keep searching for what you want to do and don't be afraid to try stuff and fail. When you succeed, don't stop, keeping going.

This is the opposite of the 'mid-table mediocrity' trap identified by the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We need to build on success, not rest on our laurels.

The CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent, put it nicely in a recent HBR interview when he talked of being 'constructively discontent' - taking a frame of mind that what you have achieved is never good enough, but in a way that puts other people off trying.

So how do you reward success, but keep people hungry - or constructively discontent?

One of my favourite approaches is competition - whether giving out awards for good performance, internal/external league tables and/or competitive tendering where the best sustainability performance is always rewarded. No-on wants to lose that no1 slot, or that Queen's Award, or lose a contract to a greener competitor. So they have to keep raising the bar - and so do their competitors.

And if you can bring a bit of the foolish into it, why not?

 

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4 June 2014

How do I get my CFO engaged in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I answer the tricky question "How do you get the Chief Finance Officer on board for sustainability?"

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here. Feel free to share or embed these videos - that's what they are there for.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.

 

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6 May 2014

What if your boss doesn't get Sustainability?

Opening eyes

Regular readers will know my opinion that the one difference between the best and the rest at sustainability (or any other organisational priority for that matter) is leadership. In fact I wrote a book about it - the Green Executive (available at all good on-line bookstores and even some real ones).

But what if your boss doesn't get it?

In my experience this rarely manifests itself as overt hostility, but more often as ambivalence or a slightly patronising punt into the long grass - "Yes, we really should do more on that, why don't you run along and write a report on it?"

All is not lost, however, there are some crafty ways of 'managing up' to get your boss's attention.

  • The killer question: how do we respond to compulsory carbon reporting? Here's our competitor's CSR report - how will we compete on this? Our energy bill is £2m pa - should we be tackling it?
  • Use Green Jujitsu to reframe sustainability to align it to company goals and other priorities. For example, a discussion of security of supply of raw materials could end up leading to circular economy solutions.
  • Volunteer them to give a presentation on sustainability: this may sound less than thrilling, but in the case of the late, great Ray Anderson of Interface such a request was the trigger for Mission Zero - probably the greatest corporate sustainability programme ever.
  • Develop a critical mass of activity demonstrating great results and then give them the opportunity to become the face of such success (see above).

What doesn't work is the standard default response - passive-aggressive indignation. Don't get mad, get clever!

 

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28 April 2014

Getting Skin in the Sustainability Game

rouletteI've written before about the need to get skin in the game for sustainability - to turn spectators into participants. Otherwise many of your colleagues will watch your efforts with mild curiosity without ever understanding that they have to actually do something. A much used, but pertinent quote comes from Marshall McLuhan:

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.

While that's the ideal, the difficult bit is getting people to understand how their decisions tie into sustainability. There are several techniques that can help:

  • Involvement: challenge people to come up with solutions in their sphere of operations;
  • Aligning systems: making sure the right people have the right responsibilities;
  • Leadership: people believe what they see, not what they read - active leadership will go a long way to help;
  • Branding: some of the best sustainability programmes - M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero and Unilever's Sustainable Living spring to mind - have really strong in your face branding to ram it home that "this is how we do things around here";
  • Training & awareness: this must be carried out at critical points eg induction.

Simple, eh?

 

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16 April 2014

The Insiders' Guide to Making Sustainability Sustainable

Baltic template

Last Thursday, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group celebrated its second birthday at the place of its birth - the iconic Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. With views of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges and the kittiwakes wheeling around outside, it was great to be back. And just like two years previously, I couldn't resist adding a little artwork of my own to the walls - one of the graphical templates I use to structure the discussion just enough.

The topic was 'Making Sustainability Sustainable' and our journey was to go from 'business as usual' to the ideal place where sustainability was 'the new normal' by driving our (low carbon) monster truck over the big pile of boulders in our way. If you want a copy of the template, click here.

By the time we finished, the template looked like this (plus a couple of dozen tangential points captured on the flip chart):

CoSM7 results

Here's a selection of the ideas the Group generated:

  • Need to clearly define and communicate the compelling reason to act
  • Give sustainability a strong corporate brand to lock it into the business (eg Mission Zero, Plan A)
  • Use storytelling, not ‘tractor production statistics’
  • Set clear, ambitious high level goals
  • Cascade goals down through the organisation, translating them as appropriate
  • Build these goals into job descriptions/personal objectives of key people
  • Play the system – identify the key driving processes (eg risk register) and get sustainability in there
  • Identify key individuals and engage them directly eg CEO, FD
  • Put leaders on the spot eg “Can you give a presentation on sustainability?”
  • Don’t be afraid to shake things up
  • Never give up!

But as always, there was as much value to be gained from the discussion and the debate than from these bullet points. As one delegate put it "that was the best one yet - the light, airy venue was really conducive to free thinking." Not to mention the fantastic lunch in the 6 restaurant on the top floor.

The next meeting in July will discuss a related topic "How to Make Sustainability Resilient" - ie to sudden upheavals such as changes in legislation, markets, business structure or key personnel.


The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is suitable for senior sustainability managers from large organisations - see our FAQs here.

 

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4 April 2014

Leadership is everything in CSR

I wrote The Green Executive in 2010 to provide both an inspiration and a manual for the new generation of responsible and progressive business leaders which appeared to be emerging from the ranks of the grey suits.

Therefore it is a bit depressing to see "engaging senior management" hitting the top of the 2degrees Network's survey of corporate sustainability challenges.

Let's get one thing straight:

Leadership is everything in Corporate Social Responsibility

Without leadership, you will not get the convergence of sustainability and business strategies. Without leadership you will find it impossible to change the behaviour of your employees (whether they'll admit it or not, most look to the leadership as exemplars). Without leadership you will never get the organisation to stop environmentally/socially damaging practices voluntarily. Without leadership, you are pushing, erm, water uphill.

And if it doesn't come within, it is very difficult to persuade indifferent business leaders to take on such an enormous challenge. But I'll give you a hint. The key is not to try to hector bosses into submission, but to help them to work it out for themselves. And that's green jujitsu, the topic of another book...

 

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28 March 2014

Ask Gareth: Do I need a better poster?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss the limitations of telling employees to behave in a more sustainable manner - in this case to travel less - and present some ideas of how to embed sustainability into the fabric of the organisation.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

 

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17 March 2014

Are you hard enough for Sustainability?

File-Chuck_Norris_(1976)

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility roles were traditionally filled by bright young things with shiny hair, clean fleeces and extraordinary niceness, but over the years I've noticed a distinct toughening up of the profession - several of my clients and industrial contacts are ex-military and a number of others talk as if they should have been!

So what's changed? Frankly, as Chuck Norris might say, if you are going to make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs. Are you tough enough to:

  • Ditch a loyal supplier because their sustainability performance isn't up to scratch?
  • Lose a director because 'they don't get it'?
  • Kill off profitable product lines because they conflict with sustainability?

These are the questions where idealism meets harsh reality - and where others will expect you to show leadership. Sustainability is not just about partnership, mindfulness and worrying about the polar bear - sometimes you have to kick ass.

Photo © Alan Knight and used under Creative Commons Licence

 

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12 March 2014

Confidence in Sustainability requires direction and magnitude

go green

Another day, another story that the Government is having a rethink about one of its key green policies - this time the Carbon Price Floor (see BusinessGreen for details). This latest wobble has lead to another wobble in investor confidence - and if you want people to make a long term investment, confidence is a key factor in those decisions.

One of my clients, Sean Axon Global Sustainability Director of Johnson Matthey plc is fond of saying sustainability is like a vector. As mathematically literate readers will know, a vector consists of direction and magnitude. It is represented by a straight line with an arrow in it - the length of the line being the magnitude and the arrow showing the direction. A vector doesn't wiggle.

In other words if you want change on a global, national or organisational level, you need to communication both the direction you want to move in and how far that move is going to be - and stick to it. Confidence will follow. Hopefully the Treasury boffins can get their heads around that.

 

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29 August 2013

Skin in the Game

rouletteI 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?"

Silence.

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.

 

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17 July 2013

The Struggle for Sustainability

iceclimbGreenpeace don't do things by halves do they? Last week's Ice Climb protest saw 6 climbers scale London's iconic new Shard skyscraper to bring attention to Shell's intentions to drill in the arctic. A heck of a lot of effort, but it paid off as the protest got plenty of publicity - some of it scathing, it has to be said - but publicity nonetheless. Whether that publicity (and the sweat required to achieve it) actually changes anything is another matter.

Seeing the huge physical effort required from the protesters to inch their way up the building reminded me of a recent conversation with the CSR manager of a major UK brand (off the record, unfortunately). The word 'struggle' passed his lips more than once - the struggle to change sometimes quite small things within his organisation, despite its reputation for CSR.

At a sustainability roundtable I took part in a few weeks ago, Andrew Davison of Newcastle upon Tyne lawyers Muckle LLP talked of the struggle to decide whether to change their legal documentation from the traditional single sided printing to double sided. Andrew said they agonised over such a simple decision.

I've often said the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide - the space between our ears. The problem is when you get lots of people together and those 6 inches start to multiply up into what I refer to as 'institutional inertia' - the ability of an organisation to push back against change. Institutional inertia is the sustainability practitioner's worst enemy - the thing that slows everything to a crawl.

Your can use the following tactics to overcome institutional inertia:

  • Perseverance: one of the key messages from The Green Executive interviewees was 'never give up';
  • Cunning: Green Jujitsu says to align sustainability with the existing culture in the organisation - rather than trying to 'do a Greenpeace' and shock people into changing their mind - this works with the inertia, not against it;
  • Leadership: if the boardroom has bought in then they can be deployed to 'unstick' projects when necessary;
  • Raise the sights: if you have ambitious well-communicated stretch targets then small decisions will appear to be 'no brainers' compared to some big strategic decisions;
  • Include stakeholders in the discussion: if you get people together and ask them help work out how (not whether) something can be done, you can gain their buy-in very quickly.

Like scaling a building, sustainability ain't easy. But then again, that's half the fun of it.

Photo: Greenpeace

 

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15 July 2013

Green Thread or Spinning a Yarn?

Green Thread

A while a go I mentioned an organisation which had ditched its environmental commitments and how it had fallen back from front runner to also ran. Well now they are bragging about "the green thread which runs through everything we do!"

What this appears to mean in practice is that they do business as usual and then scrabble around for a green angle to add to it. But, as I keep pointing out to them, you can't push a thread. You can't be proactive, you can't drive new projects, you can't innovate - at best you might pick the 'least bad' option in front of you. But more often than not it is greenwash pure and simple - the thread seems to be made of the same stuff than an Emperor once had some new clothes made from, because I can't see it.

Cutting edge organisations set ambitious stretch targets which drive 'green' into the core of what they do. Don't be tempted by the false seduction of green threads, cross cutting themes and other self-delusions, do it properly.

 

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5 July 2013

Stand Up and Lead, Godammit!

Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Stand Up and Lead Godammit!"

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC24 Stand Up and Lead, Godammit!.

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.

 

Play

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25 June 2013

Obama steps up on climate change (at last)

It was the big speech everyone concerned with climate change was waiting for. Barack Obama, leader of the world's biggest economy and second biggest carbon emitter (in terms of sources), was going to address tackling climate change head on in a speech to students at Georgetown University.

The omens weren't great. The Pres' Climate Action Plan was released hours before the speech and, while it said a lot of the right things, it consisted of a mishmash of worthy but unambitious proposals rather than a coherent strategy. So how would the speech go?

It wasn't Obama's oratorial highpoint. Wilting under (appropriately) high temperatures and competing (ironically) with aircraft flying overhead every few minutes, it was half an hour of hard slog for the man they call POTUS. But the content, oh the content, the content was spot on.

  • He demolished the case of the climate change deniers - deriding them as "the flat earth society";
  • He reframed a low carbon economy as an economic opportunity for the US, not a threat;
  • He played humble - noting that individual States were leading Federal Government and that the latter had to step up;
  • He tackled controversial issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and shale gas head on - saying the former would not go ahead unless it reduced carbon emissions and presenting the latter as a stepping stone to a low carbon economy (controversial but honest);
  • He wisely wrapped the whole issue in the Stars and Stripes - making tackling climate change a patriotic duty for a country that takes patriotism very seriously.

The impact of such leadership was instant with shares in coal companies tumbling before he'd started to speak. There was a marked contrast with the situation here in the UK where the plans are arguably much more ambitious, but the leadership is nowhere - and industry is unsure which way to jump.

I've long preached that leadership is the key issue in delivering sustainability - and it was great to see a national leader finally step up and lead. Bravo.

 

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8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Britain's only Green Prime Minister

Margaret_Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher, who died today, was one of the most divisive political leaders of our time with people either loving or hating her with equal passion. I must be one of the tiny minority that is ambivalent to her legacy.

As the son of a self-employed couple and who runs his own business, it would churlish not to acknowledge I have benefited massively from her economic liberalism. On the other hand, living in the North East of England I can see first hand the destruction that liberalism did to traditional heavy industries - and, Nissan at Washington aside, the lack of anything to replace those industries. This has led the demise of the proud blue collar worker and the disintegration of many communities.

But one of Mrs Thatcher's more unexpected legacies is that she remains Britain's greenest Prime Minister. She was the first to warn openly of the dangers of climate change in a speech to the UN in 1989, saying:

"We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere... The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto."

She set up the Hadley Centre to study climate change which has informed all progress and legislation since. The Green movement hates to admit it, but Mrs Thatcher set the ball rolling.

This led to one of the more bizarre climate change denial theories - as put forward in The Great Global Warming Swindle - that Thatcher invented climate change to destroy the coal industry and its Unions. This is despite the fact she pretty much did that 5 years previously in the Miners' strike.

Right-wing climate change deniers have tried to reclaim her since, but no British Prime Minister has nailed their colours to the mast so vividly. Major, Blair and Brown said nothing. David Cameron may have declared he would lead "the greenest Government ever" but he has barely managed to pay lip service since.

Cameron would do well to emulate his heroine, as Mrs Thatcher never did anything halfheartedly. Love her or hate her, you cannot accuse Mrs T of lacking in the leadership that we now need so badly.

 

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5 April 2013

Don't go quiet...

tumbleweedhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/jezarnold/

One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:

We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.

But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:

  • Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
  • Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
  • Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
  • Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
  • Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.

As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.

 

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