Those powerful little one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words

No, this is not going to be an X-rated blog.  It’s not about those little words, fond though I am of them at times.

English may not have the beauty of Italian or the nuance of French.  (I remember multi-lingual friends from Montreal who confessed that they fought in Italian, made love in French, and made plans in English.)  But it does have these powerful little one-syllable words that have an unusual clarity and power.

I used those words recently when I saw an email announcing that someone was taking the job currently held by a close friend.  I immediately emailed that displaced friend saying simply:

“So is this being done –

    • to you?
    • by you?
    • with you?
    • for you?
    • at you?”

That’s all I needed to know.  Fortunately, in this case the answer was “with”.  The choice of one little preposition told me the whole story.  Everything else was details.

The power of those words is that they put actions into the context of relationships.  It’s easier at times just to think of our actions in a vacuum: “I was just doing my job.”  But that vacuum is artificial.   Our jobs are done to, by, with, for or at others.  Ignoring that reality doesn’t free us up. It just limits our ability to question and understand the relationship context and impacts of our actions.

This is the underlying tension of EHS jobs, for example.  EHS actions often involve actions based on three separate sets of relationships:

  • Governance actions (such as auditing) often are done to the business.
  • Service actions (such as training or getting permits for operations to continue) are done for the business.
  • Leadership actions (such as getting R&D to think about the long-term value of sustainability attributes of products) are done with the business.

Coming at your leadership partners (people you work with) the same way you come at your internal customers (people you work for) or your audit… targets (people you do things to) is hardly likely to be effective.  Being blind to the relationship context won’t help.  Asking about those powerful little words will.

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

“It’s the revenue…”

Back in the 1992 US Presidential election, James Carville reportedly posted a sign on the wall at the Bill Clinton campaign headquarters reminding staff  (and the candidate) to focus on what really mattered.  The sign said simply: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Last week in a meeting of chief corporate EHS and sustainability officers, I had to identify the one “hot topic” driving my clients now.  Channeling my inner James Carville, I diplomatically said: “It’s the revenue, stupid.”

Certainly, some companies are moving ahead with sustainability because it is part of their core values.  That’s likely to create deeper and more enduring commitment. Others are moving ahead out of sheer momentum, because they’ve already got so much invested in sustainability and so many people working on it.  But for anyone working right now to get corporate executives interested or to reenergize flagging management attention, it really is all about the revenue.

That’s understandable.  The external drivers for corporate sustainability are sending weak and mixed signals.  The regulatory picture is fragmented, with governments everywhere distracted by debt and budget crises.  The climate change picture is fragmented, with US policy in disarray and the multinational process COP-ping out.  The consumer picture is fragmented, with markets still unclear about whether consumers are buying anything, let alone “green”.  Investors speak long-term but buy and sell on 24-hour news cycles (mostly reacting to debt and budget crises).  Even NGOs can’t agree on much besides “companies should report more.”  No wonder some at the meeting openly wondered if sustainability is a fad whose time has passed.

What is getting senior executives’ attention to EHS and sustainability now?  Anything that avoids risks and delays in creating new revenue streams.  For some companies, that means getting much better at avoiding the thicket of environmental, health and safety requirements that can keep new products out of key markets. For others, that means getting much smarter about understanding, minimizing and managing the concerns that can stall or even shut down critical infrastructure projects.  What are the biggest threats to many projects?  “Non-technical risks”: the long-term social, economic and environmental impacts of those projects, whether real or perceived. That may not carry the sustainability label, but it sure matches the sustainability content.

Call it “strategy noir”; maybe it’s the result of reading too many dark mysteries (or campaign histories) on too many long plane rides.  But if I had to get management’s attention now, I’d remember the old mystery mantra: “Follow the money.”

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