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 nadlerstrategy.com.]

The green whisperer

She is supposed to talk about sustainability in a company that isn’t sure sustainability is a serious topic.

She’s probably not working in one of those companies that has labeled itself as a loud-and-proud sustainability leader. Her company is still thinking it over.

Her company values its credibility and integrity. It is horrified at the thought of “greenwashing,” of making environmental and sustainability claims that just aren’t true (or meaningful).  Her company is so eager to avoid greenwashing that it has languished in the opposite trap, “greenmuting.”  While others speak and make claims, her company is silent.  It leaves the field open to competing companies who do greenwash.  Even when it does good things, her company hesitates to say much about them for fears of greenwashing. Even if outsiders criticize the company, its responses are muted at best, reflexively defensive at worst.

The green whisperer’s job is to quietly fill that gap of silence.  She has to move her company from defensive silence to quiet, credible presence. She has to help her company find its voice.  In the process, she has to help her company figure out what part of sustainability is a serious business issue worthy of attention, and what part should be minimized or ignored. And she has to do all this quietly, without frightening off business leaders and without coming across as naive.

It’s a serious leadership role.  It’s a serious change management role.  And in many companies, this role is being played by relatively young women and men (it seems about two-thirds are women), early in their careers and low in their organizations.

From company to company, there are real differences among the green whisperers. They may be in different functions: Environment, Sustainability, Philanthropy, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Communications, even R&D. They may have different backgrounds: degrees in engineering, MBAs, sustainability degrees, experience in business or NGOs or coming straight out of school. They may have gotten into their roles in different ways: hired from outside specifically for sustainability, volunteered for it internally, been drafted (“they said we need to do a report, go figure it out”), or have worked hard to get the role created.

There are some striking similarities, though.  In many companies, the green whisperer is under-supported and overexposed.  She is an outlier, an agent of change in a conservative company. She is an upstart in a hierarchical company: she is expected to discuss difficult topics with people 2, 3 or even 4 levels above her. At first, many in the business will not take her or her role seriously: she is likely to get as much condescension as coaching.  She may have a champion well above her in the organization, but that champion is often not in her chain of command and almost certainly not her direct boss.  She may have internal support for the environmental part of her role, but the outside world expects her company to address the social side of sustainability as well. While she may not get enough coaching herself, she has to coach her entire company, gently coaxing it to face some of its biggest challenges and opportunities.

The green whisperers find different ways of coping.  They learn from experience and keep coming back for more. They find unlikely supporters across their organizations.  They build credibility step by step, gaining a little ground each time a customer praises a report to the CEO or a salesperson finds that her work helped them get a foot in the door. Increasingly, the green whisperers find each other across companies, bonding over their shared challenges and matching scars, and supporting each other.

Will these green whisperers succeed or fail, thrive or even survive? Will they turn out to be lions, leading from below and helping take their companies to new levels?  Or will they turn out to be sacrificial lambs, their careers offered up in a token corporate effort to pretend to take sustainability seriously?

Based on the green whisperers I know, I’d put my money on them becoming lions.  The path won’t be easy and it sure won’t be linear.  But before they’re done, these green whisperers are going to roar loudly.

[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.]