Corporate Sustainability: The stakes just got a whole lot higher

poker_chips_2Corporate sustainability didn’t become passé with this election: it became essential. We now know that government isn’t going to ride in and save us on climate change. Government isn’t going to focus on air quality or water quality or social and economic consequences of infrastructure projects.  Government isn’t going to set the standards or raise the bar.

For those of us in business, that means it’s on us. We have to set our own standards and drive our own accountability. And those outside business are going to turn to us as the change agents they can still hope to influence. They will raise their expectations and their pressure on us, whether as our investors or customers or communities or employees.

Like most of us, I didn’t see this election result coming. I was nervous but not prescient. A week before the US election, I spoke at an industry sustainability symposium. I posed two challenges to the group. With these election results, the stakes on those two challenges just got a whole lot higher.  What are those two challenges?

1. Focus on what really matters for your sector and company

This is a lot harder than it seems. There are scores of sustainability issues. The babble keeps getting louder.  There are some important signals, but the noise-to-signal ratio is bad and getting worse.

The highly-visible players in the reporting/ratings/rankings world make it harder, not easier, to focus. SASB, DJSI, SAM, GRI, CDP, FTSE4Good, ISO, SDGs: the alphabet soup is pretty thick.  Each wants to be the standard for standards, each wants your attention, each wants your time. Each comes from groups with their own strategies for visibility, credibility and influence.  There’s nothing wrong with them having their own strategies – but their strategies shouldn’t drive yours.

Are all these standards relevant? Probably. Are they indicative of issues you should be aware of? Yes. Are they required? No, but ignoring some of these can hurt you by getting your company on the wrong list; think of these as table stakes that may be necessary to play in the sustainability space, but not a bet that can pay off for you. Are they efficient? Absolutely not. Are they effective? Depends on who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. Are they (as lawyers would say) dispositive, settling the debate over where you should focus? Absolutely not.

Instead of focusing on the standards, concentrate on the issues that are truly critical to the health and success of your business. For example, if your company is in the food/agriculture sector, you can’t ignore obesity and water. In the industry I addressed last week (railroads) there are some obvious issues like air quality and carbon/energy.  But there are other critical issues like “post peak coal,” life in a carbon-constrained world, resiliency (including the growing impacts of and narrowing window to prepare for sea level rise) and impacts on sustainable cities and communities. A good materiality process has to highlight those kinds of issues.

Once you’ve figured out what matters to your business:

  • Does your business acknowledge it?
  • Does your business have a plan to deal with it?
  • Are you really implementing your plan?
  • If so is it working?

Above all, as you go through this process, are you looking through the windshield or in the rear view mirror? Some of us are painfully aware of generational changes in our employees and what they value.  How many of us, in materiality, are looking at generational changes in our customers – let alone in our investors?

2. Decide what your personal role should be

Once you’ve figured out the issues that matter, there’s a second question: What is your role in helping your company understand and act on those issues? Is your role to enable? Apologize? Defer? Deflect? Explain? Inform? Improve? Influence? Challenge? Lead from below?

To look at the tough question of your role, you need to ask yourself honestly–

  • Not just who you talk to, but who listens to you?
  • What would be different if your job didn’t exist?
  • Do you help your company understand and face issues or avoid them?
  • Do you help your company learn and get better, or get by longer without having to change?
  • Do you get buy-in from senior management, or do you settle for acquiescence? Do you sell them on facing the tough issues, or only sell them what you know they’re already pre-disposed to accept?
  • How much do you manage performance, and how much perception? (Both are valid – but what’s the right mix of the two?)

Above all, what’s your legacy going to be from your time in your role?  It’s not just CEOs who get to – or have to – ask that question. One advantage of age is that I’ve been around long enough to see the consequences of my roles and actions.  What may seem like the distant future to you now will be your present and then your legacy all too soon. You can’t shape your legacy retroactively; you need to make those decisions now.

So what do you do?

I’m not proposing that corporate sustainability professionals commit career suicide. I am proposing that they:

  • Use materiality for real – to figure out “what matters”
  • Use materiality to drive action, not just communication
  • Use materiality to identify and engage key stakeholders
  • Make connections to the revenue stream, not just cost
  • Make connections to real business risk
  • Identify and recruit champions, often not your boss or even in your chain of command
  • Decide what you want your role to be. I can’t tell you what that role should be, but I can tell you it should be determined by design and not by default.

All this was hard before the election results.  In the political climate after the election, it’s that much harder – and more essential. In the US, government is not going to solve key sustainability issues.  It may not even acknowledge them. If you work in business, if you work in sustainability, and if you think the issues you’re working on (like climate change) really matter, then you don’t have much choice.  The time to focus on what matters and on your role is now.

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

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]

Mixed Greens: Green Giants, Green Shoots, Green Lions and Green Whisperers

Two different views of corporate sustainability collided in my inbox last week.

One email said that Freya Williams will speak at the US BCSD/WBCSD/Yale meeting next month. Freya Williams’ Green Giants book argues persuasively that business sustainability and business strategy have to be one and the same, not two competing directions.  She details seven businesses which have created great “win-win” outcomes, companies growing their business by integrating sustainability issues into core business strategy. She offers great examples and lessons, describing these leaders’ “epiphanies” and how those translated into business strategy and process.

A second email came from a friend and former client who now works for a regional service company nearing $1b in annual revenue. The email said:

I am trying to locate an article … directed at the executive level, indicating why they should care about sustainability.  This should probably be old news but in [this] sector that is where we are.  We use a lot of water but are recycling and the conversation about climate change doesn’t have a day-to-day impact (at least not yet)…. [T]he Harvard Business stuff and other articles would almost certainly leave our executives shaking their heads.

That friend is a Green Whisperer, helping to nudge business leaders toward awareness and progress.  That company’s leaders are unlikely to be Green Giants in any foreseeable future.  They are not likely to make game-changing transformational leaps requiring career-threatening courage, unyielding commitment and contrarian tendencies (characteristics Williams cites).

Green Giants are great exceptions but not the norm.  Let’s use reporting as an example.  I certainly don’t think reporting is the definition of sustainability progress but it is an indicator of effort.  Freya Williams points out that “95 percent of the largest 250 companies in the world now [produce] a sustainability report,” but:

Beyond that group, though, the news is less good. First-generation sustainability reporting— the process of reporting on employee turnover, energy, greenhouse gases, lost-time injury rate, payroll, waste, and water is still limited to just 3 percent of the world’s largest 3,972 listed companies and 0.04 percent of the world’s small listed companies.

Thyme_and_Goat_Cheese_Tart_With_Mixed_Tender_Greens_in_Champagne_VinaigretteThe reality of corporate sustainability is that we have to have a lot of different types of “greens”.  We certainly need the leaders, the disrupters, the Green Giants. Let’s recognize, applaud and learn from them. We also need the Green Whisperers. They are not blessed with Green Giants as bosses. They toil in the trenches, trying to move the majority of companies in the right direction.  They deal with the hard truth that epiphany is not an easily-reproducible management process.

We also need Green Lions, who take the lead and charge ahead, leading from the middle.  GM’s John Bradburn is a great example, leading his company’s zero waste effort, driving innovation and material reuse and cost savings all at once.

And we need to nurture the Green Shoots, the game-changing ideas that may take years of hard work, nurturing and perseverance before they start to sprout.  The US BCSD’s Materials Marketplace is a great example. After more than a decade of small experiments in making the circular economy real, the Materials Marketplace is now sprouting in Austin and other locations around the US and winning international attention.

We’re bringing a lot of these different greens together in one big salad bowl, a hands-on session in New Haven next month (June 14-15 2016). We’ll have the perspectives of Green Giants and Green Lions, Green Whisperers and Green Shoots.  We’ll see what they can learn from each other, and what they can create together.  Come join us there, and see what you can get from – and add to – the mix.

[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]

The Uncertainty Epidemic

There’s an uncertainty epidemic going around corporate America.

The road continues but...

The road continues but…

It is becoming a downward spiral of uncertainty, almost an emotional recession. The biggest uncertainty may be how corporate leaders will respond to this.

What’s happening inside some companies is scary. The tone sounds uncomfortably like the tone during the Great Recession. My email inbox is filled with people who still have jobs but not for long, those who’ve lost jobs, or those who have jobs but no confidence in their employer or their job security. This isn’t limited to any one sector. Sure, I’ve heard from folks in oil & gas, and in mining. But I’ve also heard from people in transportation, manufacturing, technology, consumer goods and B2B services.

I could be wrong, but I’ll bet these folks are not at their creative and productive best. They’re not coming up with the ideas or delivering the results that will help pull their companies out of this malaise. Focused on short-term numbers, some senior executives are managing brilliantly but failing to lead. That failure of leadership has made them part of the problem, not the solution. Leaders are spreading the epidemic of uncertainty, not containing or solving it.

From the corporate perspective, the uncertainty itself is understandable. Business fundamentals are weak, not bad; but spending and jobs are being slashed. This has the potential to drive the fundamentals from weak to bad, in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In some ways, the uncertainty epidemic is a rational response to macro-economic and macro-political news. There’s a lot of bad news, a lot of hard questions, and very little good news. The hardest question is “Where will demand growth come from?” No one has a good answer to that. All the conventional answers are used up. Many American consumers sat out the holiday retail season. China has stopped driving growth and creates new causes for worry every day. Europe keeps getting new challenges (like a million refugees) piled on top of a still-incomplete recovery and a tottering EU. When China slows, Africa and Australia come to a screeching halt. South America is retreating into its historic stagflation. Oil prices are a perfect embodiment of the epidemic: we seem to have gotten the costs of lower prices (regional and sectoral collapses) without the stimulus benefits.

Government tools and actions provide no solace. In the US, a presidential campaign like no other conflates personalities, partisanship and policy. It’s like watching a train wreck – except you’re on the train. No one can sit in the US, watch the news or debates, and have great faith that economic solutions will come out of the next combination of President and Congress (and certainly nothing will get done in the next year while this plays out). Fiscal policy is hardly likely to be used to stimulate growth in most of the world, given budgets, demands and deficit hawks. And monetary policy? When US rates just went up – to 0.5% – and Japan is already offering negative interest rates, there’s not much room left.

The question is, how do leaders respond to this uncertainty?

Maybe it’s time for leaders to remember the lessons of the Great Recession. That’s true both for those who lead from above, from the board or C-suite and those who lead from below, from the tattered remnants of middle management.

If you play any kind of leadership role in your company, ask yourself:

  1. Am I visible?  Don’t hide. Don’t travel the world from meeting to meeting while avoiding your own people.  Stop and talk with them.  You’d be amazed how fast word will get around.  In a world of social media, the best way to have impact is to start being social; the media part will catch on quickly.
  2. Am I being transparent? Nothing sucks morale out of an organization like people disappearing without notice.  Finding out that your colleagues left by having your email to them kicked back is not helpful or constructive. Finding out about leadership changes by seeing who has been Photoshopped out of the picture on the company intranet feels like North Korea, not like a healthy company with a good future.
  3. Am I simplifying or just cutting?  It’s easier to cut budgets or people.  It’s harder to cut processes. Cutting staff and budgets while leaving all the processes intact is self-defeating.  It leaves fewer people working harder to do things that may not need to be done.  Use this uncertain period as an opportunity to clean out that bureaucratic clutter and clean up your processes.
  4. Am I focusing on the future? Don’t deny the present uncertainties, but put time and effort into thinking about the future – and be visible when you do it.  Give your people a reason to believe there is a future.  The lesson of the Great Recession is clear: if you wait until the time is right to think about the future, it’s too late.  Your competitors will have gotten there first – and kept their best people in the process.
  5. Am I supporting my line managers? They didn’t get you into this, but you’ll need them to get you out of it.  Every time you ignore one of the lessons above, you make it harder on your managers who have to suck up the budget cuts, look people in the eye and tell them that their pay has been frozen – or that they are laid off – and still deliver results.  Give them tools not more burdens.  Help them reduce their bureaucratic load, and help them motivate their people.  Lead, don’t just manage.

None of that will change the macro-uncertainties. But it can make a real difference in whether you avoid the emotional recession, keep your best people and survive this epidemic of uncertainty.

[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] 

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 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 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.]

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.]

Sitting here in (strategic) limbo…

Many of us are sitting here in limbo (with all due respect to the reggae management guru Jimmy Cliff).  Senior management faces an uncertain and uncomfortable economic outlook.  It’s not a recession, but it’s not really a recovery. It’s… limbo.

In response, many companies are trying to continue growing, but caution and even hesitation are growing too.  The feeling is far from smooth.  Companies aren’t taking their foot entirely off the accelerator.  But the other foot is simultaneously starting to tap the brakes.  Inside many companies, you can feel the friction, the drag, even some jerky starts-and-stops.

So what are EHS/Sustainability leaders supposed to do in this strategic limbo?  While they are “…waiting for the tide to turn… waiting for the dice to roll”?  Charging ahead seems risky.  But sitting still – and perhaps becoming a sitting target for cost-cutters – is even riskier.

Some EHS/S leaders are taking advantage of this strategic pause to refresh their programs and teams.  As I explained in a new article in the on-line EHS Journal, they’re taking five concrete steps:

  • Look backward: catch up with the changes that came at you too quickly.
  • Look forward: think about what’s coming.
  • Look to the bottom line: think about how you help the company make money.
  • Look inside your program: in light of the past transactions, future scenarios, and bottom-line impacts, what does your program need to do?
  • Look at your people: all of these actions may give you new insight into what your group needs to do and, therefore, what you need out of your team.

A client used this 5-step approach yesterday to help define his strategic priorities. We produced a practical action plan that will help him break out of strategic limbo – and may yield important improvements in his EHS/S programs in the coming year.

For the full article, and more insight into what some companies are doing, check out “Is Your Strategy on Pause?”

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

The Year of the Peer

This post is a “New Year’s Recognition,” not a New Year’s resolution. It recognizes the reality we face rather than making new promises we probably won’t keep.  (If you really want resolutions, check out the “New Year’s resolutions for sustainability and strategy professionals” I posted last year; personally, I’m still working on fulfilling those.)

The recognition: This is going to be the year of the peer.  This year, practical, sustainable progress will depend on our success in working with our peers, both inside and outside our companies. This is not a feel-good exhortation to “play nice with others.”  It is a strategic necessity.

Isn’t this always true? Why now more than ever?  Because this year, top-down, vertical solutions are going to be very hard to find.  If you’re waiting for the people above you to make decisions and sort things out, you’ll have a long year.

The people above us are going to be too busy to settle our problems this year.  They face another long year of financial and policy uncertainties, with no clarity in sight.  They have given up on getting clear decisions from their governments, even bad decisions. They are starting the year already exhausted and frustrated. The uncertainties are too great and the margins of error too small in this market. They have zero tolerance for sibling rivalry and avoidable conflicts. They need “win-win” outcomes, not trade-offs.

If we want to succeed, the burden is on us to get our results without relying on the people above us to deliver them. This can be a challenge. I got an indication of this in a small client event in November.  Eight EHS/Sustainability leaders spent a day sharing candid insights into their opportunities and challenges. From different companies and industries, they each had different stories to tell. When we mapped the flow of messages to and from them, they found they had one factor in common: some of their biggest challenges were in their horizontal relationships inside their companies.  I’ve seen the same pattern already in the first 10 days of 2013.  I’ve worked with three of my clients in depth – and all three have great opportunities this year that depend on collaboration with their colleagues (in sales, operations and capital projects), not mandates from above.

Perhaps we should all take a fresh look at our 2013 resolutions and consider adding:

  • Map the relationships we need, not just the ones we have
  • Create the conversations that will build those relationships
  • Understand what success looks like for our peers, and how we can help them succeed
  • Create the win-win solutions that deliver success both for us and our peers

Don’t stop up leading both up and down in your organization. But think about your peers too.

Note: With this blog, I have fulfilled one resolution — I’ve now kept “Practical, Sustainable Strategy” going for a full year.  There was a gap in posting in December, but I’ll claim that as following #10 from last year’s resolutions.  Thanks very much to all who’ve helped me keep this blog going and hopefully useful, including colleagues, family, those who’ve posted comments, and my web coach Jeff Gorham.  I’ll try to keep the site alive and more useful and interesting in 2013.  I’m looking at some new things including perhaps guest blogs from colleagues. All ideas for improvement are gratefully accepted!

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

The art of reinvention

The first three people I bumped into were all in transition.  One was a corporate client who just landed at a new company, months after Wall Street blew up his company.  Next was a former consulting colleague who left ERM for another consulting firm – which has now been taken over by yet another firm.  The third was a corporate person now looking to reinvent herself, thanks to corporate takeovers and downsizing.

I’d walked into a reception at the Auditing Roundtable (“the professional organization for EHS auditors”), not a job fair or transition support group. This is not a group of wild and crazy adventure seekers in their professional lives.  Even here, though, the art of reinvention was a popular topic, though often discussed in hushed tones and euphemisms.  After I delivered my presentation the next day, other people I’d never met came up to talk about how to make transitions within their own companies and careers.

Each conversation brought me back to the times I’ve reinvented myself, and the lessons I learned along the way.  My most recent change was among my most challenging, when I fired myself from senior management 2+ years ago and reentered the day-to-day consulting world.  But there have been others, including going from government to industry and industry to consulting; and equally big shifts within companies, like going from marketing to real estate to environmental functions in industry, or local to global roles in consulting.

When I talked about some of my own lessons-learned in those conversations, I was asked if I could share them. So here they are.  This is an art not a science, so this isn’t a cookbook or formula, just insights. This is based on my own experience and coaching friends, colleagues and clients, not on any academic theory or rigorous research. But interestingly, many of these lessons seem to apply to a lot of situations: people out of work, people in new jobs, people promoted or making lateral moves into new areas.  They seem to apply regardless of cause.  Whether reinvention is done by you voluntarily or “encouraged” by outside forces or events, it’s still up to you to make it work.  So here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Accept the reality of your situation. Your past role – or in some cases your present role – is dead.  Go through the first four stages of grief if you need to: denial, anger, bargaining and depression.  But get to the final stage of acceptance awfully fast. Denial is fantasy, anger is a luxury you can’t afford, bargaining is way too late, and depression is the trap to avoid at all costs.  Just get on with acceptance.
  2. Design your network; don’t let it happen by default.  You can bet that the network you had is not the network you’ll need.  It may just hold you back.  In my latest reinvention, I found that I needed to change my organizational chart from vertical to horizontal.  I needed to stop focusing upward to the CEO and Senior Leadership Team, shifting instead to a focus on my relevant working Partners. And I needed to rebuild my whole client network.  Sure, there may be one or two individuals from your prior role who are truly friends, part of your support network and a real help.  But spending a lot of time hanging around with your old friends from your prior role is a waste of valuable time. And after a while it just gets creepy for them, kind of like the old boyfriend hanging around at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
  3. Define your day-to-day life; don’t let it happen by default.  It’s all too easy to keep spending 80%, 90% even 100% of some days “finishing up” or “following through” or “keeping your hand in”.  Forget it.  That’s an excuse to stay in the comfort zone rather than diving in to your new role.  (That’s certainly one that applies equally whether you’re trying to find a new job or do a new job.)
  4. Experiment.  Whatever you plan, that’s not how it’s going to work.  Try some different things and see what works.  Then go with it.
  5. Toolbox not template:  Use your great experience, but use it wisely.  Everything you’ve done will help you in your new role– especially your failures, probably more than your successes.  But understand, your new situation is not your old one.  Your prior experience is not the one right way, the template to which your new situation has to be force-fit.  Any prior success you had showed that you know how to discover the right answer; it is not the right answer, to be cut-and-pasted from your past role or organization to your new one.
  6. Seek out coaching – from lots of sources.  For me, coaching was not readily available at first inside the organization; no one had made this same move.  I then received some great coaching from the two people above me.   Both of them had been lower than me in the hierarchy until my change, and neither had made a similar change himself.  But they had powerful insight into my new role and how I could make that work.  They coached me into my new role, and didn’t really need to know or care about my old one. (And that coaching continues.) The best coaching, though, came from my clients.  I called a half-dozen clients, each of whom I’d coached in the past.  I told them the shoe was on the other foot now, and I needed their coaching.  I asked them to tell me how they viewed me, my “brand”, what made them want to use me for some things rather than other consultants.  Then I shut up and listened. Their responses were honest, insightful, and incredibly helpful.
  7. Build your support system.  Don’t confuse this with your network or coaching.  This is people who actually care about you.  Their first job is to listen to you, not talk.  When they do talk, they may be the only ones who can tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.  They may be your spouse/partner, grown child, sibling, best friend who can’t spell EHS, boss and mentor from five jobs back.  They’re with you through the whole process, come what may.  Invite them in, don’t freeze them out.  And be honest with them, don’t pretend it’s all working wonderfully.  They already know that’s not true.  They’re just waiting for you to say it.
  8. Have patience.  As my old college job counselor wrote in a booklet decades ago: “Everything takes longer than everyone thinks.”

Actually, the very last line of that job-counseling booklet may have been the most important one.  After 64 pages, the booklet ended with guidance that still applies to everyone in transition today – and I’d argue that we’re all in transition, just some are still stuck in denial.  That last line: “Develop back-ups as appropriate.”

Many – maybe most – of the readers of this blog have gone through their own reinventions.  I’m interested in your experiences and lessons.  After all, the only certainty is that we all know – and many of us will be – people who find themselves in this situation and may need this advice in the future.