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10 IDEAS TO GET THE MOST FROM YOUR SUSTAINABILITY TEAM

Produce Even Better Outcomes Through Existing Investments in Team, Technology and Time

 

By Jody Bickel Founder, Chief Coach & CEO

As I talk with sustainability leaders around the globe, I often hear them say “we have robust internal teams.” Yet, I cannot help but wonder about the outcomes these teams are producing? This is especially troubling in light of reports like this one from Accenture, which shows that 93% of corporations that have made a public commitment to net zero will probably miss the mark.

However, the issue is even bigger than net zero. When you factor in the need to make significant progress on water, air, biodiversity and land use, one cannot help but wonder about outcomes. Will organizations see the kinds of returns they were hoping for when they constituted their internal sustainability teams? My sense is that senior leaders, those with budget authority and executive responsibility, are pondering that question right now and will continue to do so for some time.

I predict that over the next 5 years or so, we will see substantial shakeups and reorgs in sustainability teams. This might mean that sustainability leaders who are doing great work could be out of a job. They might also experience a diminishment of the clout and influence they need to get the job done. I really don’t want to see this happen to anyone. So I’d like to share ten ideas that have empowered my clients to be even more effective with their existing sustainability teams. If you want to maximize your organization’s current investment in sustainability, these ideas can really help.

Who Needs These Ideas?

I’m seeing most organizations form one of three types of sustainability teams today.  

  1. Large sustainability teams with established departments. These teams are often formed with new specialized hires. They’re also augmented with existing personnel from established departments that have been assigned to help with the effort. The new and existing assignees may have numerous ideas, conflicting objectives and unclear reporting lines to the sustainability function.
  2. Mid-sized sustainability teams with a leader, limited support staff and numerous contributors who work on sustainability initiatives in their spare time.
  3. Small sustainability teams with one sustainability leader and ad-hoc contributors, often part-time volunteers.

If one of these sounds like your team, I think you’ll love these ten ideas for guiding the group and the enterprise to achieve even better sustainability outcomes.

  1. Get clarity on the mission and alignment with your team members. 
  2. Commit to Social License to Operate as your guiding formative principle.
  3. Accurately assess who’s on your team. 
  4. Commit to play like a team, not a set of individual performers. 
  5. Cross-pollinate team members into other departments or teams. 
  6. Commit to information sharing amongst team members.
  7. Commit to a team scorecard grade, not just individual grades. 
  8. Practice transparent honesty with yourself and your team.
  9. As leader, take responsibility for outcomes.
  10. Consider working with a coach to help you achieve meaningful transformation.

These ideas are not about eliminating jobs, reducing any department’s budget or asking people to change roles. Instead, they’re about making the most out of what the organization has already invested in.

A Quick Baseball Analogy

Before we look at those ten ideas, I’d like to draw an analogy from the world of Major League Baseball (MLB). The prevailing mindset in business, and in baseball, is that top performance comes from top talent. In other words, if you get the most talented people on your team, you’ll automatically perform and win. But real-world observation often teaches us a very different lesson.

Take that lauded team from New York City that has had the largest payroll in the MLB for many years. They have talent beyond compare. But do they win the World Series or even make the playoffs every year? No, they do not. In fact, teams with payrolls many times smaller than them often beat them. Why? Because those less talented teams have learned the fine art of teamwork. They play as a team and maximize the contributions of every player. Individual weaknesses are offset by the team’s overall performance.

Similarly, in the sustainability realm, hiring individual heavy-hitters by itself is no guarantee of optimal enterprise-level outcomes. To achieve meaningful and durable outcomes, sustainability leaders must focus on leading the entire team of contributors, especially those without sustainability in their title. These teams are comprised of many types of people, representing a variety of roles, titles and expertise from across the enterprise.

KEY IDEA

TO ACHIEVE MEANINGFUL AND DURABLE OUTCOMES, SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS MUST LEAD THE ENTIRE TEAM OF CONTRIBUTORS, ESPECIALLY THOSE WITHOUT SUSTAINABILITY IN THEIR TITLE.

Get Clarity On The Mission And Alignment With Your Team Members

If you want to maximize your organization’s existing investments in sustainability, I recommend that you start by focusing on the mission. Once that’s clear, I recommend that you seek to align everyone around it. You can achieve this by creating clarity around a few key questions:

  • What is the mission of the sustainability function? Why does it even exist?
  • What’s the future-state vision for sustainability at the organization? In other words, once sustainability is firing on all cylinders and achieving the most important goals, how will the organization be better? How will the organization be different and improved from what it is today?
  • What is it that this team is realistically supposed to accomplish?
  • Can everyone accurately articulate what we are trying to achieve?

Sustainability, ultimately, requires an organization to change how it operates. Organizational change is hard because it requires coordinated efforts from a lot of people. Human beings are not ants. They won’t automatically line up to work on goals. People must be inspired and motivated to change. Nothing, in my experience, does this better than a mission that people believe in.

One of the biggest mistakes I see sustainability leaders make is assuming that others accurately comprehend what they’re trying to achieve. Gaining clarity on the mission and getting the entire team to act in accordance with that clarity is the single biggest determinant of success. This clarity serves as a guiding compass to ensure all efforts, initiatives and budget expenditures produce results that matter.

Commit To Social License To Operate As Your Guiding Formative Principle 

To get the best possible performance from your sustainability team, I recommend that you commit to Social License to Operate (SLO) as your guiding formative principle. I wrote a Forbes article about why I believe SLO is so important. SLO is, essentially, your organization’s public reputation, especially as it relates to the environment.

I’ve come to believe that at any given time, customers, employees, regulators, analysts and even board members are assigning your organization one of three SLO grades:

  • Positive: The organization is seen as a good actor, trustworthy, environmentally friendly and seeking to reduce impacts and investing in initiatives that will get them to “nature-positive.”
  • Neutral: The organization has no positive or negative sustainability posture that the public readily recognizes.
  • Negative: The organization is seen as a bad actor with negative impacts on the environment and seen to behave in ways that are rogue and untrustworthy.

By focusing on SLO and seeking to improve your organization’s public reputation, you can effectively guide all contributors toward making a meaningful impact.

Accurately Assess Who’s On Your Team

If you want to get the best possible performance from your sustainability team, it’s important to assess who’s actually on your team. In my experience, most sustainability leaders fly right past this fundamental step and it’s one of the biggest sources of the labor bottleneck.

Sustainability is an enterprise-wide function and not something that rests within a single division or a department. Your work touches people inside and outside of your organization. This requires you to shift and frequently expand your sense of who’s on your team. This activity is never quite done.

I see sustainability leaders look at everything that needs to be done and then say to themselves “I can’t get it all done because I don’t have a big enough team.” However, if you were to focus on the mission, and on inspiring other people to act, you may find that the size of your team grows exponentially. All the hands that are needed to get the work done are probably available to leaders if they provide:

  • Inspiration for the mission and what it means for the organization.
  • Motivation to move the organization and its stakeholders forward.
  • Humility, service, curiosity and emotional intelligence.
  • Sincerity and focus on enterprise-wide collaboration and working with team members who may not have “sustainability” in their role title or job description.

In my experience, you’ll get way more done by empowering additional hands to work on sustainability initiatives than by trying to do it all yourself. This is why you need to accurately assess who is on your team.

Commit To Play Like a Team

If you really want to maximize your efforts in sustainability, I recommend that you commit to play like a team. I believe it is a mistake to assume that meaningful progress will come from individuals rather than from the team.  What makes the sustainability function actually function? It’s not the performance of individual superstars. It’s the performance of the team. As a leader, I recommend that you:

  • Ask each of your contributors to see themselves as members of the team first, over and above individual agendas and personal reputations.
  • Generate excitement inside the group about the value of this work, especially as it relates to everyone’s personal legacy.
  • Reinforce the notion that it takes a team to meet the sustainability challenge.

This means putting work into highly-effective team meetings and problem-solving sessions. These may need to be virtual and across multiple time zones, depending on your workforce. In my experience, the sustainability leader that focuses on their team, rather than any single initiative, pet project or individual superstar, makes the most meaningful progress in the shortest amount of time. The team is the job.

If you do this, you will most likely unlock a much bigger labor force than you can see today. This is how you unleash next-level energy and performance. Committing to play like a team means that you, as team leader, commit not to being chief doer or chief manager of various individuals. You commit to being chief inspirer and coach of the team.

Cross-pollinate Team Members

To get the most from your sustainability team, it’s a good idea to actively cross-pollinate team members. I’ve helped other organizations do this because I am inherently a boundary-spanner. Here’s what I’ve discovered. If you ask people to collaborate with other members of the organization, especially those with whom they may not yet have collaborated, you just might release a flood of new energy. This includes untapped synergies, friendships, inspiration and mission-driven outcomes that did not previously exist. Here’s how this can work:

  • Ask a group of people who have never, or only marginally, worked together before to focus on recommendations to achieve an important initiative.
  • As they work together on the possible approaches, these individuals start to think and function like a team.
  • Once they do this, they might just want to be a part of the initiative or even to take ownership for outcomes.

In my experience, leaders that seed a matrix of energized, directed teams throughout the organization see these types of benefits:

  • Team members have a much greater personal commitment to the work.
  • Team members contribute much more to group ideation, communications and accountability.
  • Leaders gain access to engage with different segments of the organization to tackle problems collectively.
  • The team dynamic is key to preventing individuals from going down rabbit holes and staying within their comfort zone, neither of which will help drive the desired progress.

This means your role is to be the person who inspires and stewards the energy that the team itself is generating. Your focus is on getting people to be boundary spanners who stretch and take their work beyond check boxes, divisions and departments. You are the one in charge of providing the safe space for this valuable cross-pollination to occur. This is the true work of the leader—to change the pattern of individuals walking in the door and heading directly to their department to work for the day. Sustainability isn’t a department or a division; it’s an integral function of the entire enterprise.

KEY IDEA

SUSTAINABILITY ISN’T A DEPARTMENT OR A DIVISION. IT’S AN INTEGRAL FUNCTION OF THE ENTIRE ENTERPRISE.

Commit To Information Sharing Amongst Team Members

To get the greatest performance from your existing sustainability team, ask people to be information sharers, not hoarders. Information within organizations is power. When people share information, they empower others to use it. Limiting information flow is the often the norm when individuals are managed for and promoted based on their solo performance. I believe that sustainability progress is highly dependent on open doors and information sharing.

This means that people don’t have to fear making poor decisions because of a lack of information. There’s nothing worse than individual contributors making recommendations that other people immediately discredit simply because the recommender lacked information. This could mean the recommender will be reticent to speak up again. You don’t want this type of behavior stifling your sustainability progress. And it could, unless you set a clear standard of sharing.

I recommend that you lead by example by sharing as much information as possible yourself. Based on my experience, here are some recommendations to demonstrate information sharing:  

  • Share all business-appropriate types of information—the good, the bad and the ugly—in a productive manner.
  • Make use of best-fit sharing tools and platforms.
  • Regularly remind the team of the sharing standard and methods.
  • When hoarding does happen, pull a team member aside privately and ask them to consider changing their behavior.
  • Develop trusted relationships with the information sharers and brokers that are throughout the broader organization. These individuals have valuable experience as they “know how to get things done around here” and can support progress.

Your team members will follow your lead. In transforming your team to hold sharing as a core value, you empower the overall organization as well as every member to achieve greater progress. 

Commit To A Team Scorecard Grade

If you want robust outcomes from your sustainability investments, commit to using a team scorecard. I recommend that you make it clear to everyone that team performance and outcomes will be how you’ll grade progress. Individual grades are for solo performances, but sustainability is a team sport.

This doesn’t mean that individual under-performance gets ignored. If people make commitments to the team, it’s important to hold them accountable to fulfill their obligations. Yet, even if everyone completes their obligations but the team doesn’t make substantial progress, that’s still a miss.

Based on my experience helping individual players become high-performing teams, you might consider these approaches to designing and using a team scorecard:

  • Create the team scorecard using best-guess initial metrics and benchmarks. Assign each metric a simple red (we have a problem), yellow (we’re making progress but not fast enough) or green (we’re right on target). It’s likely the metrics will need to be refined over time. I recommend no more than eight metrics to grade on your scorecard. To define the initial metrics, you might ask questions like:
    • How have we impacted our Social License to Operate since our last check-in?
    • How likely are we, over the next year, to achieve our most important objectives?
    • How likely are we to achieve our short-term net zero goals?
    • How likely are we to achieve our long-term net zero goals?
    • How is the team performing?
    • How did we do at spotting unforeseen problems that could have become bottlenecks?
  • Conduct the evaluation, with input from your team, about once a month, if possible.
  • Be clear with your team about the importance of the evaluation. This is not a droll, check the box type of activity. This is best handled as a conversation where you ask team members to give each metric a grade. They can do this privately and then, as a team, you can compare notes with everyone to arrive at the final score for each metric (red, yellow, green).

When you make this shift, your focus as a leader also shifts to guiding an effective and accountable team. In my experience, this approach is exponentially more effective than focusing on individual performers, where each is operating with their own goals.

Practice Transparent Honesty with Yourself and Your Team

If you want to optimize your organization’s sustainability progress, practice transparency with yourself and your team. At least once a year, make an honest assessment about what’s working and what isn’t and then share it with the team. Strong leaders don’t just face the brutal facts, they embrace them!  

This assessment gives you license to get out of the trenches and analyze what’s changed on the field of play and why. As a leader, this honest evaluation can provide you with powerful insights to justify pivots with the team and beyond. To complete this assessment, I encourage you to conduct a gap analysis. Try these techniques to fulfill the gap analysis:

  • First, make sure you have clarity about your future-state vision. How will your organization be better and operate differently once sustainability is firing on all cylinders? What are the most important outcomes that sustainability should deliver to your organization?
  • Second, make an honest assessment of your current-state sustainability operations. You can use your team scorecard as a starting point to make this evaluation. Compared to the goals in the future-state vision, where are you today?
  • Third, ask yourself how likely you are to achieve your future-state vision based on the progress you are making today. What gaps exist between your future-state vision and your current-state operations? How are efforts proceeding to close those gaps?
  • Fourth, share your analysis with your team and get their feedback. As leaders we often struggle with myopia. It can be quite helpful for those who work with you to provide an alternative perspective.

More than anything, this approach sends a message to your team: “I’m serious about achieving our goals so I won’t allow us to continue blindly down pathways that won’t get us there.” In my experience, team members love working with a passionate leader who focuses on big goals and who holds themselves accountable to achieve them. Putting this technique into practice doesn’t take away from your current resources. It simply improves the likelihood that those same resources will get you and your team to your future-state.

Take Responsibility For Outcomes

If you want to get the best possible performance from your sustainability team, I encourage you to take responsibility for outcomes. Never blame others when things go wrong. As leader, you are ultimately responsible for the performance of the team. I’ve come to believe there are two situations where it’s important for leaders to take responsibility:

  • When talking with people not on the sustainability team, especially when providing assessments to executive management or the board.
  • When talking with people on the sustainability team, especially when holding one-on-one accountability sessions.

On occasion I’ve heard leaders describe for what’s happened over the last year, using phrases like: “Well I really wish we’d seen better performance out of such and such” or “I thought we had a stronger performer in this particular area, but as it turned out we didn’t, and we are still trying to figure it out.”

Even if these statements are accurate, they will likely erode the performance of current team members who may be afraid of being thrown under the bus in the future. This is especially true of part-time contributors who already have a full-time job while also making contributions to sustainability in their spare time.

As an executive leader responsible for the sustainability function, taking full ownership sounds more like this: “Here is what happened over the last year and here’s what we learned. This is our mission and here is what we’ll do over the next 6 months to get back on track. I’ll take responsibility for where we are and I’ll also take the necessary action to get us to where we want to be.” Executives typically love this kind of statement and it inspires confidence in them, as long as you follow through on your commitments.

Now let’s look at taking responsibility in one-on-one sessions with a team member. Sustainability initiatives are best tackled as a team, where individual team members commit to work on a certain task as part of the larger initiative. It’s very common for team members to struggle and fall behind. When this happens, there are two ways to handle these one-on-one conversations: play the blame game or inject a bit of humility as a leader.

Here is what it might sound like to play the blame game: “Six months ago you committed to work on X.  Based on everything I can see, you’ve not made much progress. It looks like you’ll miss the deadline for this task. Why is this happening? Do you really want to let down your teammates?

Here is an approach to inject a bit of humility into these conversations while also taking responsibility as leader: “Six months ago you committed to work on X.  Based on everything I can see, it looks like you’ll miss the deadline for this task. Am I wrong about that? Is there something I’m doing as a leader that is blocking you from making progress? Is there anything I can do to help you get back on track? What do you need to be successful in this role?

It’s amazing what happens when leaders take responsibility for outcomes. These acts of leadership keep the team healthy, open doors for progress and serve as a model for team members to follow.

Consider Working With A Coach

Great leaders need counselors and advisors. Yet very few people in sustainability leadership roles have a sounding board or a mentor to guide them. I encourage you to consider working with an experienced coach as early as possible, before burnout or other equally unfortunate outcomes occur. Why should you consider this? Here are some questions that might indicate you could benefit from a coach:

  • What level of experience do you have in wielding executive-level power to bring about broad-based organizational change? How many times have you done this?
  • How many times a month do you feel like simply throwing up your hands or quitting?
  • How many other leadership roles have you held where your ability to be successful largely depended on contributions from people who were not your direct-reports or in your department?
  • Who are your leadership role models and how appropriate are those models for the situations you face today?
  • Who is actively bringing you ideas to solve your most intractable problems? How can you be confident those ideas will work?

Final Thoughts

This Accenture report indicates that most organizations will not achieve their net zero targets unless they make significant pivots. My concern is that there will be fallout for faithful and diligent sustainability leaders who gave it their best effort. I really don’t want you to be among that group. I’ve shared these ten ideas to help get the best possible outcomes from your existing investments in sustainability. These ideas are based on more than 25 years of coaching sustainability leaders and I know they work. If you want to talk about any of them, please know that my door is open.

JODY BICKEL

Founder, Chief Coach & CEO

For more than 25 years, Coach Jody Bickel, Founder and CEO of Creekbank Associates, has coached sustainability leaders to achieve their most important goals. Jody is deeply passionate about empowering sustainability leaders to break-through the circumstances that hold them back from achieving their full potential. Her goal is to build strong 1-1 connections with sustainability leaders she coaches so they become even more successful than they’ve been in the past.