Sustainability = Change
by Roxanne Kichar, The Piras Group, and Pamela J. Gordon, TFI Founder and President
This article first appeared on the Technology Forecasters, Inc. blog.
Consider this scenario: Your CEO gets religion on sustainable processes and products – both for cost savings and environmental reasons. But in pushing this agenda down the ranks, employees are resistant; they ask, “Why are we spending time on this when there are so many other priorities?” Or, a manager tries to push a sustainability plan to the executive suite and encounters a bewildered, “How does this fit in with this quarter’s financial results?” For both scenarios, it’s time to call in a change agent.
A successful change agent for sustainability – either on the inside or outside of the company – understands that employees can resist change if there is confusion, negativity, or disruption. Sustainability efforts can backfire with insufficient understanding about the program’s rationale and urgency. Getting employees’ buy-in for sustainability changes requires careful thought to showing how these changes will directly, and positively, affect them.
The challenge is slightly different when presenting a sustainability program to the executive suite. It’s essential to document substantive bottom-line improvements and risk reduction – otherwise the presenter will receive a polite dismissal at best or a firm “no” at worst.
TFI colleague Roxanne Kichar (of the The Piras Group) recommends addressing “why, what, and how” when implementing the kind of widespread change necessary for a profitable sustainability program:
Why? Create a sense of urgency around the need for change, explaining the situation using company data and peer research. Invite honest dialogue to begin building support. While selling benefits is a common approach used by management, creating urgency will get things moving faster.
What? Next, address what this change is going to look like in the short and long term. Conveying, “This is what we will look like when we’re done,” builds a vision around which people can rally. Unfortunately, most change efforts skip this step. People don’t want to be “sold” on a change; they want to understand it and know what the plan will look like.
How? Lastly, answer the concern “How will this affect me?” Most changes fail because employees worry about job security or increased responsibilities. Take time to listen to and address employees’ needs and fears, communicating the good news with the bad. For example, employees may gain the freedom to periodically telecommute — reducing both costs and environmental impact. Or they’ll learn a new software program that replaces an arduous manual process.
(For more change management insights, Kichar recommends Kristen Frasch’s article “Change for the Better.”)
Some sustainability efforts fall short of delivering corporate-wide profitability and substantive environmental benefits because they lack long-term planning. TFI regularly helps electronics-industry clients to create 5- and 10-year sustainability roadmaps, yielding millions of dollars of cost savings annually (for products often 1%-5% COGS reduction, and for operations 5%-10% SG&A). To accomplish this scale of success, change is a vital and ongoing requirement that spans all company functions and locations, and requires skillful and persistent changes.
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