In this guide:
- Sharing my experience of building support
- The power of listening
- Making sense of it all
- Inviting others onto the sustainability journey
- Putting all this into practice
- Action: Over to you…
- Links to articles and other resources
In this guide I’ll help you build support among directors and senior managers for sustainability and for your initiative. Their support is going to be essential as any sustainability initiative that’s going to make a difference will need resources, support and cooperation – but more importantly, people coming together around a shared vision and purpose.
Sharing my experience of building support
A few years ago, I was commissioned to help a high profile public sector organisation develop a sustainable procurement policy. It was a big and complex project, but the key steps were fairly clear. Although the key steps were clear, the support of senior staff would be needed to deliver them.
Like most of the projects that I’m involved with as a sustainability consultant, I started off by interviewing key staff, initially focusing on senior management. I’m going share a bit about my experience of doing this and I’ll suggest how you can adapt this approach for your own situation.
The approach I use is the one I outlined in the previous guide, How to talk about sustainability with colleagues. That approach is based around three phases, listening, sense making, and inviting.
The power of listening
Having identified the senior staff across the organisation who were going to be influential in the approval and implementation of the sustainable procurement policy, I interviewed each of them one-to-one.
My focus was to interview them as whole people and not just as their job title. So I was really trying to understand their personal interests, concerns and motivations, rather than just how they thought about sustainability and purchasing in a professional context.
So what did that look like in practice?
At these interviews I would discover that people were interested in things like Fair Trade because they were involved in a Fair Trade group in their church. I discovered that people were interested in organic agriculture and healthy food, because it turned out not only did they get an organic vegetable box, but they also volunteered on a regular basis at the organic farm.
I discovered that somebody else, for example, was really interested in and concerned about issues around gender equality.
Those were their personal interests. They weren’t necessarily things that they normally talked about at work in a professional context. But as those interviews developed, I was able to weave them into the conversation and start reflecting them back.
So when we started talking about the cafeteria in the organisation, I was able to bring in things like “do they serve Fair Trade products?“, “Do they serve organic products?“, “What about healthy eating?” So when we were talking about the purchase of uniforms for the security staff, that led us on to a conversation about sweatshops and the conditions of the workers making those uniforms.
As the conversation developed, I started asking questions about different aspects of sustainability and how were they being taken into account in the procurement policy and how might they be taken account of in the future. When that started bringing up all the various barriers that public sector purchasing faces, they were really open to thinking “how can we do the best we can within the constraints of public sector procurement regulations?“, rather than immediately saying the regulations don’t allow us to do anything beyond choose the lowest price product.
Of course not all of the people I interviewed were actively involved in those kinds of sustainability related projects, but, by connecting with them early on in the conversation at a personal level, I was able to help them recognise how sustainable purchasing issues were related to their personal interests and and concerns.
One of the really powerful ways we did this was deciding very early on in the project that rather than talking about sustainable purchasing, it would make more sense to talk about responsible purchasing.
We had a really strong hunch that the organisation liked to think of itself as responsible, so talking about responsible purchasing would make it seem much more relevant. And after all, who wants to be associated with irresponsible purchasing? In the podcast at the top of this page, I explain how I did this in practice, if you’d like to know more.
So while the interviews were an information gathering exercise, they were really about active listening. They were about encouraging and stimulating people to think and reflect, and hearing what they were interested in, what they were concerned about, and what they needed.
I always billed these as an interview rather than as a meeting, because that really gave me the freedom to keep asking questions rather than getting into a dialogue about offering solutions, trying to explain and getting into arguments.
Making sense of it all
The second phase of the support building process is sense making. This is where I analysed the interviews. I was looking for the common themes that were coming through, the particular interests and concerns that could be connected strongly and effectively with responsible purchasing. And also trying to understand the needs that people were expressing that could be addressed in the next phase.
In this sense making phase, I also undertook a fair amount of desk research: reviewing existing documentation around the corporate vision, its mission statement, strategies and policies. I was looking for connections between what they were already committed to, or working towards, and responsible purchasing.
The purpose of this was to show how there was continuity between this new agenda and progress towards the aims they were already committed to. The idea being that the more we could show continuity, and how this was supporting existing aims, the easier it would be for the board that was making the final decision to adopt the policy.
Inviting others onto the sustainability journey
The final phase of this process was inviting. I think about this as “inviting” because what I don’t want to do is force or coerce people into getting involved with a sustainability initiative. What I’m trying to do is show them how this is something that they are already interested in and support. Something that can meet some of their needs and inviting them to join others in the organisation on that journey.
So that’s the background to why I like to think about this as “inviting”.
In practical terms, what I was doing in this phase was using the results of the interviews, the desk research, and input from workshops we’d held with other staff, to start drafting a responsible procurement policy. And then going back to the interviewees and inviting them to give feedback on it and contribute to the revision of the responsible procurement policy so that it was very much something that they could recognise their input in; something that they felt a sense of connection and ownership with.
And after various revisions, that draft policy then went with their endorsement to the board for adoption. And I’m glad to say it was adopted and it was one of the things which helped that organisation get started on its sustainability journey.
Collaboration for sustainability: What works?
Join other sustainability leaders to discuss the factors behind effective collaboration, and how to apply them in your work.
12:30 – 13:30, Wed 6th Mar, 2024. Read more and register on our events page…
Putting it all into practice
I hope that’s given you a bit of insight into how I apply this approach in my work.
Having taken you through that example, let’s look at how you can apply this approach yourself. To help me focus, I’m making an assumption that you’ve recently taken on responsibility for sustainability in your organisation and that the organisation doesn’t already have a sustainability strategy or initiative, and it’s your role to come up with a plan.
You can adapt this approach to many other situations, but for now, to keep it simple, that’s the assumption I’m making as to where you’re at, and how you might be using this.
Let’s outline the process that you’ll go through.
- Your first step will be to interview senior management and potentially other key individuals within the organisation.
- After the listening process, you’ll move into making sense, you’ll review the interviews, you’ll review existing documentation, commitments and so on.
- Then the final phase is the inviting. Here you think about possible next steps and you invite the interviewees to take part in further meetings or workshops or to approve draft documentation and so on.
Five principles for effective ‘listening conversations’
If you’ve had training or experience in coaching, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of how you can go about structuring and leading these sorts of conversations. But if you’re unsure, here are five principles to help you.
Principle 1: Open the conversation to all aspects of sustainability
Try to open the conversation to all aspects of sustainability. People are often not aware of the range of environmental and social and economic issues that are relevant to sustainability. You want to encourage them to pick up and explore a range of issues rather than just focusing down on one particular issue, like climate, for example.
Tip: To help them think about all aspects of sustainability, print out the graphic of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals or encourage them to watch this 3 minute video (in advance or show it on your tablet).
Principle 2: Aim to build rapport and deepen your relationship
It’s important try to build rapport and deepen your relationship with the person you’re interviewing because you really want to connect with them as a person, not just connect with them professionally in their job role.
Depending on your existing relationship with them, it might be appropriate to acknowledge that actually you don’t know much about them as a person. You’d be really interested to get to know them better and their personal interests and concerns.
Principle 3: Ask about their interests, their concerns, and their feelings
This is crucial to the listening phase: ask about their interests and their concerns and their feelings, and listen for their needs.
In How to talk about sustainability with colleagues (Action, Part 2), I suggested doing research in advance about the people you’re meeting, and this is really, really helpful.
If you know some background about them and some of the things that they’re interested in, you can do a little bit of research into how sustainability is relevant to those issues, and picking up on that can help you connect with their personal feelings and concerns. For example, if they’re keen on football or some other sport, you could share something that you’ve learned about their sport and sustainability (see The Sustainability Report; the inside track on sustainability in sport).
Whatever their personal interests, with a bit of searching, you can probably find information about sustainability that’s relevant.
Principle 4: Ask about what’s already happening in the organization that’s relevant to sustainability
Asking about what’s already happening in the organization that’s relevant to sustainability, and what they think about it, is important to help them see how the future sustainability initiative can build on what the organisation is already doing.
So you might, for example, mention an existing project and ask them what they think about. And then ask what else is happening around sustainability that they know about.
Principle 5: Steer the conversation towards solutions, possibilities and next steps.
Steer the conversation towards solutions, possibilities and next steps. Avoid getting stuck listening to, or even worse getting dragged into discussing, why things aren’t possible. Avoid getting sucked into answering questions.
If they keep on asking questions, it’s a sign of a need for information. So you could ask, would a separate briefing session or a training be helpful? And that might be the next step for this person .
Don’t just listen for the practical solutions, possibilities and next steps. Also listen for emotional engagement: the issues and ideas give them energy; the needs that they’re expressing that, if met could lead to them become more supportive and more involved.
- At the start of the conversation, make sure to explain that you’re in an information gathering phase, and that you’re not necessarily looking for concrete suggestions or commitment at this stage.
- At the end of the conversation, let them know how useful it’s been and that you’ll be taking their contributions along with everybody else’s and getting back to them soon to invite them to be involved in the next steps.
- After the interview, make sure to review how it went and see what you can learn for the next one.
Let’s move on to the next phase: making sense, where you will review the interviews, review strategy and commitments, and existing activity. And use this to get a picture of not just where the organization is at the moment, but equally important work out where key people are at the moment. Eg:
- Organizationally, what’s already happening internally, that can be built on?
- What are the external drivers that are in play now while coming up?
- What are the opportunities and possibilities and in terms of the key people personally and professionally what are they concerned about and interested in?
- What do they need to encourage and enable them to be more supportive of the project and engaged in sustainability?
- What would they like to do next?
Deciding next steps
Now you’ve gathered all this information, you need to work out what you’re going to do with it next. I’m not a fan of big complex plans – certainly not at this stage when things are so fluid.
I suggest getting a picture of roughly how you see things developing. You might see a few different options, but don’t invest time and energy in developing detailed plans and scenarios. Instead decide what are the next couple of steps that would move things forward. Eg:
- A workshop to start identifying and quantifying the organization’s main impacts;
- if there’s a range of options for where this project goes next maybe the next step is to discuss these at the board meeting;
- If it’s not quite ready to go to the board yet, maybe the next step is to go back to people individually and ask them for input and feedback on a paper that you are drafting for the board.
You’ve decided on your next step, and now you want to invite the people you’ve interviewed and possibly some others as well, to be involved.
The key thing here is: make it easy for them to say “yes” so that it’s more likely they’ll be supportive and get involved:
- In the invitations, as far as possible, reflect back what you heard in the interviews so that in your proposal, they recognise the things that they’re concerned about and interested in.
- Wherever possible refer positively to existing commitments and policies and activities, so that people who don’t know about them are made aware of them and those that have been involved feel acknowledged.
Tip: As you create these invitations, take account about the normal processes and culture of your organization, but if normal processes and culture are actually a barrier to progress, it may be best to engage informally, one-to-one and build support until you’re confident your plans will have a good chance of success through formal channels.
Your invitation to action…
Hopefully you can see how you can use the approach and these principles to build support for sustainability among directors and senior managers.
Once you’ve completed these three phases and started on the first step that you’ve invited people to, you’re on your way!
I’d love to hear how you get on, or if you have any questions. Email me!