Redesigning EHS amid the chaos

It seems strange to talk about organization amid all the current national and global turmoil.  But people still have to do their day jobs and fulfill their responsibilities to their companies, their people and themselves, so the discussion goes on.  Especially because turmoil – much less dramatic than on the national stage but disruptive all the same – is going on at so many companies.

The challenge for high value, low visibility functions – like EHS – is to redesign themselves for life after the turmoil, without having the luxury of waiting for all the smoke to clear.  The most visible situation is post-merger. But the same chaos and need also exist in other corporate disruptions including acquisitions, corporate splits, the dreaded “new strategy” and ensuing reorganization, or simply massive downsizing (“de-organization”).

Let’s face it.  In most of these corporate shuffles, functions like EHS are an afterthought. It would be nice to think this will change as companies mature, that senior management will recognize the virtues and talents of the EHS organization and protect the exceptional people and programs that have already been established. Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen. Irrational and arbitrary cuts will happen. The EHS organization will have to find ways to step up both efficiency and effectiveness, not trade off one for the other. EHS leaders have to deliver the value their company needs within the budget and organizational envelope the company wants.

Organogram AbstractionThis is serious stuff. Bringing two companies’ EHS departments together post-merger isn’t like hosting a wedding dinner where the biggest problem is keeping the two families apart, containing the obnoxious relatives and stretching the alcohol budget.  This goes well beyond drawing up the tables and assigning seats. This is a serious strategic process with implications for business performance, EHS performance, and careers.  It requires asking the tough questions — even if you have to answer them yourself.

Some EHS leaders do a great job of this.  In one recent acquisition the EHS leader of the acquirer framed the strategic questions even before he was sure he had the top EHS job.  As soon as he got the nod, he developed clear hypotheses of what the new, merged company would be like and what it would need from EHS.  Without waiting for guidance, he proposed cutting out an entire layer, designing new centers-of-excellence based on emerging needs, and staffing those centers based on skill rather than prior job levels. At a stage where his peers are often waiting for direction and facing budget death of a thousand cuts, he has a plan, won approval (or acquiescence), and is busy creating an effective new leadership team.

A colleague and I pulled together some of the lessons learned from lots of painful experience in a new article, After the Deluge: Designing EHS Organizations for Post-Merger Companies.  Take a look.  Share your experiences, either in comments on that article or back on this blog.  And good luck to all.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in blogs. 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.]

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.]

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]

Kochleffels of the world, unite!

My Midwestern American Methodist wife loves Yiddish. From the day she discovered she was a shiksa, her two favorite words in any language may be tchotchke and zaftig.

She says she likes the onomatopoeiac nature of it: words sound like what they mean. Personally, I think she likes the gentle ruthlessness of Yiddish. Its combination of honesty, irony and the absence of malice taps into three of her favorite things.

IMG_1859We’ve just added a new Yiddish term to our family vocabulary: kochleffel. I encountered the term in a New York Times article last week. The article quoted actor Rob Reiner describing TV trail-blazer Norman Lear as “a ‘kochleffel,’ a Yiddish term meaning ‘pot stirrer.’” I immediately went to my Yiddish mentor – my mother, who was born in New York City but whose native language was Yiddish. She reported: “Koch is to cook. Leffel is a spoon. Referring to a person it is one who can stir things up.  It is a compliment. Applies to one who gets things going.”

I’m fascinated by the gentle, positive tone of kochleffel. We are so focused on conflict and upheaval these days. We have the revived interest in Schumpeter’s creative destruction. We have Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation. The Hegelian dialectic requires its conflict between thesis and antithesis before a new synthesis can emerge. Even non-violence and passive resistance are largely defined by the violence and aggression they defy. History seems filled with examples where seemingly some have to tear down before others can rebuild.

Kochleffel is such a different metaphor. In fact, it’s a different world view. It says, stir, not whip. Use a spoon, not a knife. Stir it up, not burn it down. It can be effective; it’s not like someone can come along and unstir the soup. Timing matters too: stirring the soup is a lot more effective when there is some heat applied.

Stir things up without breaking them down. Not a bad change model. If nothing else, a reminder to keep a good spoon in the toolbox, along with the knives, hammers, crowbars and levers.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or to 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.]

Risk, resilience and the rear-view mirror

Over the last month, in client work sessions and in conferences in San Francisco and Chicago, I’ve had conversations with over 40 corporate EHS/sustainability leaders. Behind closed doors, despite lots of hard work and good progress, there is more unease than complacency. I heard three related aspects of that unease.

Risk: What’s keeping us up at night?

When asked “what’s keeping you up at night right now?” the leaders gave a surprisingly consistent answer: Basic performance. No matter what the numbers say, are we going to hurt or kill someone? Is everything really working as well as we’d like to believe? If it isn’t, will we find out before something really bad happens? Will we find out in time to fix it?

When asked “what keeps you up around the longer term?” they gave much more varied answers. There was a common thread around emerging or rising expectations and regulations. The details varied but included carbon, safety and sustainability-related reporting (including SASB).

Resilience: Are we prepared to cope with those risks?

Resilience is getting a lot of play. Whether resilience is an important concept or “just the new buzzword” (as one Environmental Director suggested skeptically) is open for discussion.

Resilience can be an important concept. There is important work being done around it, including how resilience might provide a different way to interpret and apply sustainability.

At the same time, it is a popular buzzword. Some use resilience as jargon to dress up “just recover from bad stuff faster than the competition.” That’s important, but it’s way too narrow.

Resilience raises key issues. Resilience is the ability not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of change which may be disruptive, discontinuous and dissonant. That change can come from anywhere, including in your organization, geography, business, or the climate (political, physical, regulatory or economic). At its best, resilience is not just getting better at reacting, responding and recovering when bad things happen – a fatality, a devastating release, loss of a key part of your supply chain. Rather, resilience is anticipating, adjusting and adapting to changes without having that fatality, devastating release, or loss of a key part of your supply chain in the first place.

In one conference, I illustrated that by pointing out a friend in the audience. Let’s call him John. I said I hoped I never had to go to John’s wife, whom I know, and tell her that John had been hurt on the job – and was never coming home. If I did have to do that, though, I didn’t think it would help her much if I then added brightly: “But the good news is, we’re resilient. We recovered so quickly that we replaced John already. John’s dead, but we lost only a few hours of production. Isn’t that great?” That’s not the kind of resilient I want to be.

Resilience therefore poses a challenge to your management systems: Do your management systems help “risk-proof” your company, or are those systems themselves something you have to worry about risk-proofing? Do your management systems help prepare you for the things you can’t prepare for?  Do they actually give you capabilities that are resilient, or just more rigid plans?

Put another way, do your management systems help you sleep at night – or are they something else that keeps you up at night?

Rear view mirror: Where are we looking for insight into those risks?

If resilience is about anticipating and adapting, not just responding better, how do we anticipate the changes and understand the risks?

There’s a big focus on data and information systems. Clearly, we learn more each day about Big Data’s capacity to gather more information about everything (including us, like it or not). Focusing on data has its own risk, though: existing data, by definition, is historical and backward looking. Focusing too heavily on data is like driving down an urban freeway at rush hour with duct tape over your windshield, looking only in your rear view mirror.

The interesting question is, can information systems help you understand the past, manage the present, and anticipate the future? There’s a lot of energy going in that direction, especially in intriguing things like predictive analytics that might help you look forward.

Then, at a dinner with some new ERM Partners (now new friends), I had the most energizing conversation of the month. They reminded me of the most powerful tool for looking forward: gathering smart people with different perspectives in structured ways to create powerful, insightful interactions. Getting and using that insight is subtle. You can mine data; you have to harvest insight. By creating the right platforms and processes we can help our people articulate, compare and combine insights. We can get better at sniffing out the weak signals already coming our way, and finding ways to amplify them without distorting them.

That may create a foggy and messy view through the front windshield, but it sure beats looking backward.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or to 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.]

Fit for Purpose?

A lot of EHS and Sustainability leaders are quietly questioning their management systems. I’m hearing comments like: “We have a great EHS (or Sustainability) management system.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s really been effective and has great support.  We certainly don’t want to go backward. BUT, maybe, if we could get a fresh look…”

Why are EHS/S leaders questioning their systems? Sometimes corporate events (the “five T’s”) drive a clear need to question what you have:

  • Transitions: You’re new in your job with both an expectation that you’ll change things and a short honeymoon period in which to do that.  Or a transition took place above you, and your new boss brought in their expectations from their prior company.
  • Transactions: Your company just got spun off from the “mother ship” and you don’t really have any systems (or even staff).  Perhaps you merged with another company and two great but different systems have to be reconciled.
  • Transgressions: Something went wrong, leading to NOVs or customer concerns or bad press. That creates a need to do something different, or at least look like you are. (Not surprisingly, transgressions often lead to transitions.)
  • Transformations: Management consultants got paid three times your annual budget to play 52 pick-up with your company, and you have to figure out how to live with the results.
  • Transparency: Something – going public, increased GRI reporting, a transgression, or simply growth – is opening your company up to more public visibility, and you have to be prepared.

Sometimes the drivers emerge more gradually. Implementation of your management system may have slowed down due to initiative fatigue from too many competing initiatives and systems.  With experience, you may be seeing progress – but it seems to be too slow or too costly for the business. Or even success may be the concern: effective EHS/S systems can lead to management complacency, where business leaders think the work is now done and they can check the box and move on.

Regardless of the driver, the underlying reality is often the same: the management system is no longer “fit for purpose.” The system isn’t necessarily flawed; the target moved. Some recent examples I’ve seen include:

  • The management system was designed for a company that was 90% manufacturing and 10% service, with most of the risks inside the factory fence.  Now the company gets 50% or more of its revenue and most of its growth from the service side– with risks out on customer sites, where your control is lower and the consequences higher.
  • Due to business changes, operations and exposure have shifted from “intensive” (e.g. a refinery with every risk known to man, in a tightly managed facility) to “extensive”  (e.g. pipelines, terminals, distribution centers or retail outlets strung out over thousands of miles).  In the extensive situation, each site may have less risk individually but has even less management oversight and unique costs, creating large but very different aggregate risk.
  • Risks increasingly are created by the business decisions to pursue particular kinds of work or work in particular locations, but the management system still focuses on how the work is performed on-site, not on how the work is selected, bid, reviewed or prepared.
  • The company has shifted radically from being centralized to decentralized, or vice-versa – and the management system may need to adjust either to match that shift or to compensate for it.
  • Or simply the company has changed dramatically in size and shape – doubled, cut in half, or changed from mostly US and Europe to mostly emerging markets.

Some companies under-respond, tinkering around the edges and hoping they can muddle through. Some focus just on the immediate driver and try to bolt on a fix. Others over-react, junking their system and looking for a magic solution they can cut-and-paste from another company.

EHS/S leaders have found the more effective, practical strategy is to take a fresh look at the management system’s purpose, and see how to ensure that the system is fit for that purpose.  This involves asking a few key questions – and they don’t start with EHS or Sustainability:

  1. What is the business you need to support – now and going forward, not in the past?
  2. What is that business’ strategy for success – growth, geography, differentiation, branding, repositioning?
  3. What does that business need from EHS/S performance to support that business strategy?
  4. What systems do you need to deliver that performance?
  5. What’s already working that you can ruthlessly leverage, and what needs to be altered or built?

That’s how those leaders have refocused their management systems to be fit-for-purpose.

[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.] 

The most social media of all

As the US BCSD annual meeting came to a close, I urged participants to reach out to colleagues using all the digital channels we’d created.  I reminded them to connect colleagues with the Twitter hashtag #scaleup, the LinkedIn connection, and even the google+ community.  Then on the spur of the moment I added: “And you can use the most social media of all — talk with them.”

We had gone proudly digital at this meeting.  We shared documents on Google.  We created our own Twitter hashtag just for the meeting. We exchanged email lists. Some of us even connected with each other on LinkedIn while sitting in the same conference room.

There was a purpose to all this.  It wasn’t just to pretend we were cool (or that some of us aren’t that old). We made a conscious decision to create multiple channels for participation and sharing. Everyone isn’t comfortable speaking up in a group. Everyone doesn’t feel equally empowered in a meeting: like many meetings, this one had a hard core of folks who were veterans of the group, with others who were new – and less likely to be comfortable speaking up. Everyone doesn’t work the same way: digital channels are delightfully “asynchronous” for those of us who suddenly realize at 2 AM what we should have said or asked in the session the prior afternoon. And if we want to engage younger colleagues, we figured, we need to offer the channels they use.  (My good friend and former colleague Bonnie Cheuk taught me this concept of “multiple channels” during ERM‘s own strategy process 5 years ago.)

It’s easy to fall into the digital trap, though. Digital channels are great ways to sustain contact or pass on information.  But it’s very hard to build relationships and trust digitally. Those take face-to-face contact with real give and take.

Image 2-12-14 at 8.54 PMBetween the US BCSD meeting and a session with The Conference Board’s Chief EHS Officers’ Council the week before, I’d had 50 real conversations in two weeks.  It was tiring, but fantastic. I got to know colleagues better. I made new contacts I never would have met on-line. We found real connections we never would have discovered with laser-focused tweets or articles reposted on LinkedIn. We talked about children and grandchildren, houses and apartments, illnesses and losses, paths that crossed in strange times and places. We found human connections we can build on going forward.

Not everyone has the luxury of time and travel to make those connections. Not everyone is comfortable with walking up and talking to strangers.  There is real value in including more people by using multiple channels, digital and analog, remote and face-to-face.

Still though – talking with people, the most social media.  Who would have thought it?

I know there’s nothing new or dramatic in all this.  But it was a useful reminder for me.

[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.]  

Connecting the Disconnected Executive

Many of us are suffering from Disconnnected Executive Syndrome (DES).  Regardless of what may show up in the CEO letter at the front of our corporate sustainability report, the CEO and the rest of the C-suite are largely disconnected from EHS and sustainability issues.  Fortunately, there’s a tool box that we’ve turned to over the years to help reconnect those executives.  For many of us, it’s time to go digging back through that toolbox, as well as listening for new ideas.

Looking backward, in some cases, it’s our own fault.  One of the biggest causes of DES is complacency born of success.  No crises, no attention.  As my CEO told me once back in my railroad days, “I haven’t seen you in my office in at least 6 months.  That must be good news.”  Some of my best work had been managing bad stuff so it didn’t escalate to a level warranting his attention.  By succeeding, had I failed?

It’s also our fault because we trained the C-suite to look at the numbers (and especially the numbers we thought we could influence most directly).  Injury rates are down, NOVs are down, waste is down, life is good.  Risk may be up, but the numbers are good – until they aren’t.

The economy is another good cause or at least accelerant of DES.  There are no secure CEOs and no secure companies.  No sector or region feels comfortably buoyant.  No one trusts public policy to leave well enough alone, let alone to help.  So the C-suite is in a state of permanent distraction.

And sometimes, it’s just time.  Messages, however compelling, get stale.  The half-life of a great internal campaign is probably about three years at best.  After that, the decay curve sets in, messages are tuned out, attention wanes, performance drifts downward.

What’s in the toolbox from before?

  • Get executives out walking around.  Even the best executives find themselves insulated in a world of meeting rooms and airports.  Walking around their own facilities and sites can often be an eye-opener.
  • Hijack an existing initiative for shock value.  Many companies periodically train and practice, even at the highest levels.  This may be around media training, preparing for Board or shareholder events, or more general emergency preparedness.  Hijack those efforts, make sure the scenarios and questions used make executives think about the right “what if” questions.  “Of course we’re world class [whatever that means], but what if X happens, how do I explain that?”
  • Change the numbers.  Show them some different numbers that look disturbing.  Those might be the rise in near misses, the drop in the average years-on-site for your personnel, the declining number of EHS professionals per 1,000 FTEs, anything to put some yellows and reds into the traditional traffic light slides, or some downward arrows where the executives aren’t used to them.
  • There but for the grace of God …” As our mayor here in Chicago used to say, never let a good crisis go to waste. When your competitor or customer or supplier or peer has a disaster (whether in West TX or Bangla Desh), make the most of it.  Brief the Board.  And when they say: “That can’t happen here, right?” don’t rush to reassure them.  That’s your opening.
  • Engage champions.  Sometimes we’re just tuned out or pushed out.  We have no real access.  Find someone who does.  Find the least likely and most compelling messenger – not your boss or someone from corporate communications, but a grizzled old manufacturing VP who has seen it all and has the respect of all.  If they say “we’re overconfident, we’re drinking our own bath water,” executives are more likely to listen.

What else is appearing in the toolbox now?  What’s emerging these days to help combat DES and reconnect executives?

  • Connect your customer’s executives to your executives.  Remember, you may be your customer’s problem.  Your counterpart may be struggling to get their EHS and sustainability messages through to their supply chain to reduce their risk.  That’s you; you’re somebody’s supplier.  Your executives may not listen to you – but they’ll certainly listen to their peers in a customer’s organization!
  • Tie your messages directly to the revenue stream.  Risk in general is a concern.  Risk to the revenue stream is an executive priority, especially in these markets.  EHS and sustainability leaders are reconnecting with executives by focusing on:
    • Risk to capital projects (“non-technical risk”).  Failures in these projects jeopardize revenues – so much that they also jeopardize share price and careers.
    • Risk to service revenue.  Many companies are tipping from making more in manufacturing to making more money in service. Much of that service takes place in your customers’ facilities.  Failure in your facility is bad enough.  Failure in your customer’s facility can stop this revenue growth in its tracks.
    • Opportunities and not just risks.  How can your services and performance reduce your customers’ EHS and sustainability risks and burdens?  Can you reduce their footprint?  Can you make their life easier?  Your sales VPs may be eager for something good to take to their customers, something that differentiates your business in a commoditized world.
  • Focus on one or two of the right numbers.  Showing your exposure on service or capital projects  or growth geographies may only take one or two numbers.  Throw out the rest of the deck and just show those.
  • Expose executives directly to your employees, especially the younger ones – both as employees and as leading indicators of the future marketplace.  Those employees care.  And they aren’t easily intimidated by management.

What’s not in the toolbox?  More PowerPoint or more data for its own sake. The disconnect isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional. Your executives are bright.  They get it. They just don’t think about it much.  If they do, they don’t think it’s their job to do something about it right now.  So don’t keep pounding the same old points and data. Focus on connection rather than cognition. Look for something that connects them emotionally.  Help make it their business.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]