Why communicators are vital to delivering sustainability

You’re probably familiar with this story:

On a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, President Kennedy spoke to a man sweeping up in one of the buildings. “What’s your job here?” asked Kennedy. “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

That’s a level of personal engagement in a job that most employees don’t yet feel. But in the world of sustainability, where I’ve worked for the past decade, it’s vital that we foster engagement like this across our workplaces. Corporate sustainability goals are becoming ambitious, strategic and more closely tied to core business strategy – and the more fundamental the changes required to achieve them, the less likely it is that the charge can be led from global headquarters.

Many leading companies – such as Virgin, EDF Energy and TUI Travel – are finding ways to drive change throughout their businesses not just through the traditional employee engagement channels, but also by fostering deep engagement with a smaller audience: hand-picked champions in key areas of the business.

I’m not talking about the “green champions” of old (you know, the ones who could be found patrolling the floor for contaminated recycling bins). This new breed of champion knows their part of the business inside out, and is empowered to make the decisions needed to drive lasting change. If your company has them, it’s likely they don’t have a name like “change agent” or “champion” – but, nonetheless, that’s the job they’re doing.

For example, Wal-Mart created a dozen Sustainable Value Networks to deliver its ambitious sustainability goals. The networks consisted of Wal-Mart employees, NGOs, academics, government officials and suppliers, all working under a Wal-Mart sustainability champion. Each team focused on a strategic sustainability issue and soon showed clear results – the fleet logistics team improved efficiency by 38%, saving $200m annually. (For more on this case study, see David A. Lubin and Daniel C. Esty’s article The Sustainability Imperative in the May 2010 edition of Harvard Business Review.)

In my view, this network of change agents is a sustainability team’s greatest asset, and it should be managed with care. But getting the best out of them is a new departure for many sustainability professionals, who are often hired for their technical know-how or their sharp strategic skills rather than their ability to engage, persuade and influence each other.

If you’re a communicator, you may already see where I’m going with this… because those skills are exactly the ones you’re likely to possess in spades. That means you can play a critical role not only in the communication of sustainability initiatives, but in the delivery of the strategy itself.

All you need to do is to share your professional skills with your local sustainability team, and you’ll be helping to fast-track sustainable change within your company.

Share your comms skills

Let’s start with the most obvious one first.

Most global companies will have a network of sustainability champions from different countries, departments and brands, all working to deliver change within their small part of the business. They’re such a valuable resource because they’re all different: knowledgeable about their own area of the business and how it works.

But those differences make them more difficult to communicate with as a group. You can help the sustainability team to develop a clear and robust plan for their communications – the key messages, most effective channels and frequency of messaging. And, if you’re in a global role, you can help with your insights on communicating across departments and cultures.

Help them find the right people

As a communicator, you almost certainly have an enviable contact list of your own. That means you can help the sustainability find and secure the right people for their own network.

The ‘right people’ will be different for each company culture, but some qualities are needed across the board. My own perfect champion job description looks something like this: Ambitious senior manager or director with a passion for sustainability, linked clearly to the business, and the ability to inspire and influence others.

It’s a tall order – but chances are that you know better than most people how to find such a person in many of your company’s departments. Can you introduce them to the sustainability team so that their talents can be used for good?

Lend them your attitude

Finally, you can contribute something slightly more esoteric – your attitude to getting things done. I may be guilty of stereotyping, but my experience is that communications professionals tend to be more entrepreneurial in their approach than the average sustainability manager. Faced with an issue you don’t understand, you’ll get on the phone for an explanation… and if that person can’t help, you’ll keep trying until you find someone who can.

That’s exactly the attitude that the modern sustainability team needs – unafraid to build support for their strategy and confident to reach out and make connections. So if you can find a way to help the team to foster deeper relationships with their key contacts from across the business, please do so.

Many of the ideas above may seem small, prosaic or even boring to you. But the sustainability strategies of most major companies are sorely in need of some communications magic – not just to tell employees about its successes, but to be part of the successes themselves.

And if we get this right, we’ll all have our own man-on-the-moon stories to tell. Wouldn’t that be something?’

This article was first published on the Fishburn website. Image: Daylight moon by Fillipi Pamplona is licensed under CC BY 2.0