New home: Nadler Strategy LLC

Dec 2015 LogoI am pleased to announce that my full-time professional home is now Nadler Strategy LLC.

A few years ago, I viewed this possibility with fear and dread.  The idea of “going out on my own” after turning 60 seemed daunting, if not outright crazy.

A great friend helped me focus on what I feared: the risk of no corporate employer, and the loneliness of truly being alone professionally. He helped me look at the opportunities instead of the fears. By managing my projects and platforms as a portfolio, I could reduce the risk substantially.  With the chance to work more flexibly and choose my projects, I could become more closely connected with great colleagues, both old and new.

Now, this is something I’m approaching with excitement. With the turning of the year, I wrapped up a great 20-year run with ERM.  I launched this stage almost a year ago, when I began to work from multiple platforms. Much of 2015 was spent testing, learning and developing new approaches and connections. I found a number of intriguing opportunities beyond the corporate consulting model.  I found I was better connected and less alone than before.

It’s now time to move into that world full-time. I’m looking forward to offering strategy, sustainability, facilitation and coaching services through the Nadler Strategy platform.

I will continue to work from other platforms as well:

Other opportunities and collaborations are taking shape.  I’ll explore those in future blogs and as they ripen. Until then, please feel free to follow me on Twitter or Facebook or visit my web site.

Best wishes for a happy healthy and productive new year.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to nadlerstrategy.com.]

Corporate roles, personal journeys

I recently brought together seven colleagues for a ‘Micro Forum’ in Chicago, IL to share their strategic and organizational perspectives. It became a vivid reminder of the very human side of our work relationships.

All the participants were VP-level leaders in corporate environment, safety, sustainability and/or energy functions. They came from a wide range of companies and sectors from transportation to health care and technology to household-name consumer products. They shared many of the same strategic and organizational challenges. Behind those, though, they each had very unique personal journeys.

For seven people in roughly the same roles, the range of their stories was fascinating. Some were lifers, with their whole career in one company. Others were in their third or fourth or fifth company – in one case, just within the last five years. Some had spent their whole career in the same function but with different companies, while others had been in multiple functions in one company.

They were at very different stages of their careers. Some were nearing the final lap. When asked what they hoped their personal story would be three years from now, some were hoping to be gone from their companies, retired – but they still had things to accomplish before going. Others had one last big initiative – or promotion – in their sights before retiring. Their journeys over the next few years involve choices about timing, negotiating exits (if they expected to have any say in it), geography and what to do next.

Others were entering the prime of their careers. They faced choices about balance: balancing families and work, balancing the ambitions to move up (which might mean leaving their functional area) with the ambition to do more within their function (which might limit promotions).

They opened up to each other. Some had only met over dinner the night before. Others only met when they walked into the conference room at 8:30 that morning. By 10:30 they were sharing. By noon they were asking each other for advice.

I had the great opportunity to sit and listen. Several things jumped out at me:

  • How committed they are. Despite setbacks and frustrations, all deeply care about helping their companies do better at protecting their people, communities and the environment. All are genuinely proud of their accomplishments. None of them sit in the C-suite, but they are leaders, truly leading from below.
  • How valuable this was. “Peer-to-peer” isn’t just a technology file-sharing geek term, it’s an important human concept. These can be lonely roles. The participants quickly realized they were sitting with genuine, smart, trustworthy peers. There was a clear sense of relief in the room, as people opened up, asked for help with real problems and offered support.
  • How hard it is to be proactive about your career. These bright, realistic people spend a lot more time planning for their companies and programs than for their own careers. They know they need to be prepared for what may come, both opportunities and disappointments. Those in mid-career know that no jobs (or even companies, these days) are secure. Those late in their career know that windows may be closing and options may be narrowing. Yet they struggle to find the time and mental space to create the options they want rather than waiting to react to what happens.

Most importantly, I was reminded that everyone we deal with has their own personal journey behind their organizational role. It’s all too easy to fall into dealing with them solely in terms of their roles, without understanding (or caring or helping) with their personal journeys. I convened a bunch of corporate officials. I spent valuable, affirming time with a room full of people. That was a healthy reminder, especially this time of year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners. To share this post, see additional posts on my blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.]

Safety is Job 2?

Safety isn’t Job 1, as so often claimed. If safety were Job 1, we’d never leave the house. We’d never cross a street. We’d never get in a car or on a plane.

If safety were Job 1, companies would go out of business rather than send employees out to drill for oil, mine iron ore, operate a drill press or a band saw, or drive a truck in New Jersey.

Let’s admit it. Doing the job is Job 1. Doing it safely is Job 1 ½, or Job 2, or Job 1.2, or whatever you want to call it. Are there times that the safety risks are such that the job shouldn’t go on? Sure. Is it every employee’s responsibility to make those decisions at times? Yes. Is it leadership’s job to help ensure those decisions are made properly and supported? Absolutely.

Even more importantly, it’s leadership’s job to minimize the likelihood that front-line employees and managers have to make those difficult decisions about walking off the job or doing the job unsafely. But it’s also leadership’s job to ensure that customers are pleased, shareholders and lenders are satisfied, employees are respected and treated fairly, and laws are obeyed. At different times, those are all Job 1. Balancing those jobs is difficult in the best of times.

That’s the challenge leaders face every day, but especially in companies under stress. When the price of your product drops by half, survival is Job 1. We all know it. Companies under stress face huge demands to cut costs, reduce margins of safety, and do whatever it takes to get the job done faster and cheaper.

There are no easy solutions. But there are some important questions to ask and steps to take. I explore those challenge and questions in a new article on “Managing Risks Under Stress: Challenges for Leaders.” I invite you to take a look at the article and share your own experiences and insights here.

As that article notes, leaders cannot be paralyzed by these risks; if they are, their companies will not survive. The companies that succeed are the ones who adapt, not abandon, their risk governance.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.]

Making connections, missing connections

Coming back from a meeting in New Haven last weekend, I spent several fun-filled hours at O’Hare trying to make my connection. At different times, we had a plane. We had a gate. We had a crew. We had fuel. But it took two hours of delays (and multiple gate changes) to get them all together, along with the passengers, before we finally took off.

The airline hadn’t run out of planes. Or gates. Or fuel – they didn’t go drilling for oil and then refine it; they just finally got the right truck to the right plane at the right gate. The problem was connections: the airline (and airport) making their connections so we could make our connections.

That was the same message I took away from the New Haven meeting, a unique collaboration of the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY). The meeting was about “Collaborating to Achieve Scale” in business and sustainability. Over 100 leaders from business, NGOs, academia and government had intense discussions around substantive issues like water, coastal wetlands, materials and the circular economy, climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

In session after session, the theme of making and missing connections came through. We are not short of challenges, obviously, but we’re not short of technology, ideas, data, enthusiasm or even capital either. What we’re all still learning to do is to connect them up so that the solutions can really take off.

In some areas, there is real progress. The Materials Marketplace platform is designed specifically to make connections, in this case between businesses with waste streams and businesses who can use those wastes as feedstock. The Water Synergy Projects are designed to connect entities who use water, those who depend on it, those who regulate it, all within a cohesive geographic area. Sustainable Forestry is bringing together partners from up and down the value chain. Energy Efficiency in Buildings is moving into a second phase, focusing on more replicability to achieve scale. Emerging projects like Climate Smart Agriculture are all about making the right connections across multiple industry sectors as well as government and NGOs.

In those and other areas, there’s still a lot to do. Finance is a particular challenge. The people with capital to invest, the people with capital already at risk, and the people impacted by both problems and solutions are just beginning to find ways to connect. And we’re learning that in some cases, we may be chasing the wrong people, trying to connect with sectors that may not be ready to participate in solutions yet. So there are delays and missed connections and frustrations.

There’s a lot to harvest and share, both about content areas and around cross-cutting issues of finance, technology, communications and policy. But above all, great platforms like last week’s meeting provide real hope about making more of the right connections.

Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.

To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

The better-than-Circular Economy: The Spiraling Economy

The circular economy is all the rage. It’s a great concept that’s been evolving for years. It even got a shout-out last week in the Pope’s encyclical letter on climate change and the environment, which noted the need for “a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations.”

Ironically, the powerful “circular economy” label obscures one of the most crucial potential benefits of the concept: you don’t have to end up back where you started.

From an environmental perspective, a circle is a powerful metaphor: a closed loop, in which resources are not spewed out as waste or pollution, and new resources don’t need to be dragged in. The notion that one company’s waste can be another’s feedstock is hard to argue with. It’s a great way to reduce waste, and hopefully energy, toxics and water use as well.

From an economic perspective, though, a closed loop is a stagnant mess, unlikely to survive for long. And from a social perspective, a closed loop is a disaster, a fixed-sum game which creates only the dismal choices of either retaining locked-in inequities between the rich and poor, or seeing disruptive redistribution of that fixed sum.

Fortunately, the circular economy is really a misnomer – a great concept “brand” but inaccurate. Much of the work on circular economy shows the potential to generate more economic value and growth without increasing environmental burden (hopefully even reducing environmental burden). Reuse is spawning innovation in both materials and design. More value is generated from a given unit of mass.

From an environmental perspective, the flow is circular. From an economic and potentially social perspective, the flow is upward. The result? You have a spiral, not a circle. Each time you close the loop, the accumulated net value has gone up.

That’s what we really want: an upward spiral, where each environmental cycle creates more value.

How do you create a spiraling economy? By encouraging:

  • Efficient markets that can quickly match generators of “available materials” (formerly known as waste) and potential productive users of those materials
  • Broader markets that can draw in a much wider range of both generators and users, creating more opportunities for higher-value reuse, even when partners are physically distant
  • Colocation of generators and users, creating both environmental and economic leverage through reduced transportation and increased local economic multiplier effects

That all takes hard work. Fortunately, a lot of people are doing that hard work. It’s happening at the local level, in projects like the Austin Materials Marketplace and ROC Detroit. It’s being scaled up to the national level through the National Materials Marketplace jointly sponsored by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Corporate Eco Forum.

Want to know more, share what you know, catch up with latest and help figure out next steps? Join the US BCSD, WBCSD and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment for a unique working meeting in New Haven July 16-17.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.]

The Pit and the Pendulum: EHS&S and Productivity

Some EHS and sustainability leaders feel like characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story. That’s never a good sign, especially when the story is “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Management guru Edgar Allan Poe

Management guru Edgar Allan Poe

In the story, the protagonist is stuck in a bad place. He is in a dungeon, trapped between falling into a deep, dark pit, never to be heard from again; or lying still as a sharp pendulum blade swings slowly back and forth, inexorably moving closer to cutting into him, deeper and deeper.

For EHS&S leaders, the pit is organizational oblivion, with CEOs saying “no news is good news” and hoping never to be reminded that you and your program exist. The pendulum is the oscillation of corporate strategy and organization. It swings from centralization last time to decentralization this time, and back again. Or from growth to contraction. Or from geographic to functional organization. Merging or splitting up. Back and forth, back and forth. Whichever direction it’s swinging now, you can bet it will swing back again later. And each time, the blade cuts lower.

Like Poe’s protagonist, EHS&S leaders desperately hope there’s a way out and that the story gets better. In the Poe story [spoiler alert!], the cavalry rides in to save the day, literally. In corporate reality, there is no cavalry. But there is a ladder to climb out.

The ladder shows up when you shine some light into the dungeon. When you look across multiple companies and sectors and see the same phenomenon, a few things become clearer:

  • It’s not personal. You actually have a lot of company down there. Look around. Many of your peers in other companies are in the same place. Perhaps more importantly, many of your business and functional colleagues are also down there with you.
  • It’s not random. There are real things going on in the national and global economy which are driving this situation. As I wrote in an article this week, we are in the Era of Productivity. Investor pressures to preserve earnings and deliver growth are colliding with soft markets, collapsing prices and geopolitical uncertainties. Boards and CEOs are focusing on hard-core productivity: how to squeeze more value from every resource (capital, equipment, people) – or how to reduce the resources needed to produce each unit of value.
  • It’s depressing. Almost as depressing as this blog. Especially for EHS&S veterans who finally thought they were getting real traction with sustainability, it’s wearying. The economy may be out of the recession, but the profession is still in clinical recession: not as deep or prolonged as clinical depression, but still a barrier to seeing if there are ways out.
  • There is a way out. EHS&S can become a driver of productivity, not just a victim. Many EHS processes and systems are artifacts of earlier great ideas, but have grown stale, bureaucratic and cumbersome. They may no longer be fit-for-purpose. They may be ripe for re-engineering and streamlining. And sustainability? That’s all about productivity, getting more value out of every resource (think carbon, water, circular economy) or reducing the amount of resources needed to produce value.

This Era of Productivity is the fourth wave we’ve lived through in the corporate environmental space in the US. The prior waves have receded but not vanished. Critical elements of the prior waves (regulation, accountability and sustainability) are still there, important parts of corporate programs. But the growing wave of C-suite attention is on productivity.

The_Pit_and_the_Pendulum_(1961_film)_posterClimbing the productivity ladder isn’t easy, and there isn’t any fall protection to reduce the risks. But climbing sure beats waiting for the pendulum blade.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.]

Sustainable Platforms: Launching the next stage

Welcome to our new world of multiple platforms. One professional platform no longer needs to fill every need.

Many of us working in sustainability at this stage (I’m 60) find ourselves with lots of experience and interests – more than fit in any one role. My friend Chuck Bennett and sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb explored this challenge well in two articles last fall talking with a half-dozen of us “sustainability veterans”, including tips for “sustainability veterans who won’t quit”. There are other things we want to do professionally. At this point in our lives, we don’t want to delay getting on with them. I’ve gotten a lot of signals in my personal life recently that have reminded me forcefully not to put this off.

US BCSD logoSo effective today, I have a new platform. I am Program Director (part time) with the US Business Council for Sustainable Development. US BCSD is “an action-oriented and member-led nonprofit business association that harnesses the power of collaborative projects, platforms and partnerships to develop, deploy and scale solutions to ecosystems, energy, materials and water challenges.“

Oversize logoBut today I am also delighted to remain a Partner at ERM, a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk and sustainability services. In fact, that remains my day job and my main platform. I will continue to provide corporate clients with help in strategy and management for environment, health and safety (EHS); and in linking sustainability issues more closely and effectively with their business. I look forward to continuing to serve my clients there.

And today I continue a lively conversation with a number of close friends and respected colleagues working in academia, in the investment community, and elsewhere using private means to achieve public ends. They are creating fascinating and hopefully sustainable platforms like Gastameco and its “innovative projects in the field of social housing” such as its We Crociferi development; or Co-Creation Ventures and its Stock Pot Malden “culinary incubator and commercial kitchen”.

I want this next stage to be the culmination of my professional life, not an epilog. For 40 years I’ve worked in the public-private frontier, in one way or another. For 40 years, I’ve helped drive change, hopefully in productive and constructive ways. For 40 years, I’ve worked in different aspects of strategy and management, economic development, and sustainability. Now, I want to pick and choose more of how I work on those issues. I want to apply everything I’ve learned. I want to keep learning.

In the long run, will this strategy of multiple platforms help drive more progress in sustainability? Will this mix of multiple platforms prove sustainable, personally and professionally?

I invite you to learn with me, by following these organizations, or following my journey on this blog or on Twitter.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners.]

David

This blog is very personal. It’s about the loss of my brother. If you want to skip this and wait for my next blog about strategy or environment or sustainability, please feel free to do so. But this is something I have to do.

My oldest brother, David Nadler, died earlier this month. David and I had been distant, at best, for decades. When he received his cancer diagnosis in 2012, many things changed. One of them was our relationship.

David had dominated my youth. He set the bar. I wanted to be like him and I wanted to be accepted and validated by him. His seeming distance intimidated me, annoyed me and inspired me. Some good bit of my professional success can be traced to the burning desire to prove myself to him and to be worthy of him.

By our twenties, we had gone our separate ways – geographically, professionally and politically. We saw each other at family events and in family crises. We met infrequently as our paths crossed, at an office in New York City or a pub in London. We could work together when needed, but kept our distance. Our mother attributed this to David and me being too much alike; frankly neither of us cared enough to agree or disagree with her.

After David’s diagnosis, with David nearing 65 and me nearing 60, with our children grown (and some of them getting along with each other better than David and I did), we connected. As we joked, we didn’t reconcile; we had never “conciled” to begin with. We didn’t pretend; we openly referred to our growing relationship as one of the “silver linings” of his cancer.

DAN and SENWe spent time together with increasing frequency and ease. We found much we had in common, including music, books, movies and TV shows. Our mother was right: we were very much alike, even both guilty of “dreaming in PowerPoint”. We differed in many ways too. We cheerfully argued over our disagreements, especially in culture and politics. I castigated him for believing The Wall Street Journal; he pitied me for believing The New York Times; and we discovered we both really relied on The Economist.

For readers of this blog who are waiting for the applicable lessons, here are two:

  1. It’s never too late. While David and I had a meaningful relationship for only two short years, I will treasure that relationship and those two years for the rest of my life. As I told David, someone asked if I regretted that we hadn’t connected sooner. I could only quote the sage (Willie Nelson): “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted, but that’s a waste of time and tears.”
  2. Don’t let the differences obscure the agreements. After David’s last battle with his cancer began, we found ourselves spending New Year’s Eve together in a New York hospital. As we argued politics, we found we were about 98% in agreement on climate change, its causes, and what should be done about it. Who knew? What might we have accomplished if we had realized and acted on our areas of agreement over the years, instead of focusing on our disagreements?

But this isn’t about useful lessons. This is about my brother, whom I came to realize I loved and even liked, and who is now gone. To go on with my blog without giving him his due felt disrespectful and dishonest.

I will miss you, David. I will not forget you.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]

Dreaming in PowerPoint

I’m in a mixed marriage.  I think in PowerPoint.  My wife thinks in Word, or sometimes in longhand-on-lined-pad.  Our children reflect this genetic mix.  Our daughter is bilingual in Word and Excel, and fluent in PowerPoint.  Our son’s native language is pencil-stub-and-spiral-notebook, though he’s now fluent in Word.four box

This is more than just about techno-geeks and Luddites.  It’s about a way of seeing the world.  Forget Myers-Briggs.  If you want to understand how people really think and work differently, look at their tools of choice.

Because for me, PowerPoint isn’t just a handy tool.  Sure, it’s a great way to avoid writing complete sentences, to waste time adjusting the meaningless details of a circle’s color and transparency, and to let my OCD run wild over aligning shapes.  But it’s much more important than that.  PowerPoint expresses – and indulges – my need to find patterns.  It’s how I make sense out of the nonsense. It’s not just how I do work.  I practically dream in PowerPoint, waking up seeing the boxes and arrows and connectors.

There’s a lot of power in that.  A lot of my professional work is based on seeing the patterns, helping people:

  • Step away from the details and see the bigger picture
  • Compare their experience to that of others in different but analogous roles or situations.
  • Understand, articulate and improve their models, whether of strategy or organization.

There are a lot of blinders in that too.  Models are inherently false.  They work because we strip out all the messy details to create the models.  Among those messy details are many of the individuals and their characteristics.  That means models are great tools to use, but lousy icons to worship.

You could almost draw a triangle, with each apex being people who primarily think in PowerPoint, Word or Excel.  Then you could do really neat stuff mapping people or roles on that — oh, wait, there I go again.

Do take a look around you, though.  How do the people you work (and live) with think?  Are you allowing them to work in a way that works for them?  Are you adapting to them, or forcing them to adapt to you? Are you creating teams with the right mix of complementary thinking?  Will that work or will they never agree on how to think about the assignment, let alone carry it out?

And we won’t even talk about Microsoft people versus Apple people versus Googledocs people.  You probably need a PhD in psychology (or marketing) to tackle that one.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM. To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]

Right elevator, right speech?

Do you want your most important message to be accepted or declined?

You probably know the concept of the “elevator speech”.   You bump into your CEO in theIMG_0641 - Version 2 elevator. He or she says: “I haven’t seen you in a while. [If you are an EHS leader, they may add, ‘I guess that’s good news.’] What are you working on these days?” You suddenly have the length of the elevator ride to make the pitch of your career. Go.

I mean, go. Stop reading this blog and recite your speech.  Now. Put down the tablet or phone (or God forbid print-out). Recite your own real elevator speech aloud. Go.

So how did that go?  Could you do it?  Was it convincing? Compelling?  Did you have to stop and think it through? Would your target audience have accepted your message, nodded and said, “Come tell me more”? Would they have declined it, nodded curtly and walked off? Was your key executive off the elevator and on to a busy day before you figured out what to say?

This isn’t a new concept, or an original one. But it’s a powerful concept that keeps coming up. In these days of multi-tasking and over-scheduling, the elevator speech is more important than ever. When I got my first job out of college, working in a governor’s office, we were pressured to scale heights of brevity and focus: everything had to be kept to one page, maybe 450 words. Later, that became one screen – maybe 250 words. Now, you may only have 140 characters – or the one minute before everyone else shows up for a meeting.

In the last few weeks I’ve encountered the concept:

  • Working with a young promising consultant, lost in a larger company with no clear version of his personal “brand” and why anyone should use him in their work – especially Partners encountered casually and infrequently
  • With a client who is stuck and needs to open up alternate career paths within her company without raising red flags – which means sending the right messages in brief interactions with executives
  • In my own day-to-day life, explaining my own plans as I hit age 60 and 20 years with my company, shaping (and correcting) assumptions about my future held by people who really don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about my future

Ask yourself two questions:

#1. Do I actually know my own elevator speech?  

Do you update it? Do you practice it? If your most important player – boss, CEO, customer, whatever – came in right now and said “so what’s up?” do you have that at the tip of your tongue?  The best opportunities often come when we are least expecting them; it’s too late to prepare then. So prepare now. Write out a draft of your elevator speech – two sentences, three at the most. Then:

  • Cut it down. You probably cheated and wrote out four or five sentences, cleverly disguised by semi-colons.
  • Find it. Your key words are buried in there somewhere. The real message is probably 20 words in. Try deleting everything before that.
  • Keep it positive. The young consultant started out with what he does NOT want to do. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the hardware store to buy “not windows”. I go to buy a door, or a hammer or light bulbs. You buy a positive, not a negative. Assume your audience is just like you.
  • Keep it consistent. You may tailor the language for some audiences, but the core message has to ring true to any audience – and can’t contradict your core message to other audiences.
  • Teach it. You are probably not the only person carrying your message. If you are a leader, do your people know your elevator speech? Do they have their own elevator speeches ready, and are they consistent with yours while in their own honest voice? Listen to the message they convey – is it the message you want or need carried throughout your organization?
  • Try it. Practice your speech on others. Listen to what they say and refine your speech. After all, what matters isn’t what you think you said, it’s what they heard.

The best way to practice is with others in the same boat. At an ERM Forum years ago, we paired off EHS VPs from multiple companies to practice their elevator speeches with each other. We then asked them what they heard. One VP commented: “We sound like supplicants. We don’t sound like we believe we belong at the table.” Another, reflecting on the challenge of condensing complex reality into a simple message in the length of an elevator ride, sighed: “We need to move to a taller building.”

#2. Do I get on the right elevators?

Sometimes it’s about finding the right elevator. You probably won’t bump into the CEO if you’re riding the freight elevator.

For EHS and sustainability leaders, the challenge is getting on the business elevator. The people who need to hear your elevator speech may not be the people you spend time with. What are you doing to create the opportunities to use that great speech, once you have it?

And sometimes it’s about knowing when not to deliver your speech. For years I worked in downtown Philadelphia. My favorite elevator was horizontal: the 6:44 AM R5 commuter train from Bryn Mawr to 30th Street Station. Two of the most powerful men (and yes they were all men then) in my company took that train. They walked to the station from their houses on the Main Line. I had to drive 15 minutes from my decidedly un-Main Line house to park there, but it was worth it. Over the course of a year, I’d talk casually with them a few dozen times waiting for the train. Three or four times a year, one of them would ask a question or make a comment that gave me an opening. I had my elevator speech ready and I delivered it. I like to think that those opportunities had a lot to do with my rise through the company and the success of my programs. But I’m sure my success owed even more to all the other times when I just shut up and let them read their newspapers.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients]