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8 Tips for New Sustainability Managers – The First Week, Month and 90 Days

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The first 90 days

Your first few days in a new job are always daunting, especially when you have been recruited as a Sustainability Manager to develop a new direction towards greater business sustainability. Ahead of you lies a business change programme that will impact on organisational roles and accountabilities, but ultimately on the organisational culture if it is to be successful. No easy challenge as ahead of you lies a minefield of mis-communication, personal mindsets and no doubt one or two obstructive manager. The train is ready to go, but how do you first get out of the station?

Don’t rely on guidance!

One of the first major environmental roles I took on was with Scotttish plc in 1994. A Power Utility with growing interests in England, the US and in the water utility sector.  They had decided to recruit an environmental team to support organisational and operational activities across thier Technology Division.  The interview had been a strange experience, as for over an hour they asked few questions but talking openly about the environmental issues they faced. They clearly recognised the need for environmental management but had little concept of how to address the threats to the business. I nodded, looked wise and competent, but was rarely asked how I would proceed if handed the opportunity.

There was no predetermined job description, role or even defined set of environmental accountabilities for the team they were seeking to recruit.  There was no compelling company vision for the environment at that time and we were unlikely to receive any further advice from the senior executive once recruited. The clear instructions from him in our first days was simply to ‘Go and do something Environmental!’

Well in the next decade we certainly achieved that. ScottishPower became the first UK utility to gain ISO 14001 in Scotland and England. It won all the major CSR awards and developec a highly successful strategic approach to environmental impact assessment that is still a successful model 30 years on.

Your first few days as the Sustainability Manager

Yes, the first few days are incredibly stressful and daunting for the newly hired sustainability manager, especially when joining a business with little organisational maturity or leadership in sustainability, or with an undefined sense of what it is seeking to achieve through your employment – resource management, regulatory safeguarding, risk governance or a solid platform for future sustainable growth and value.  You have the knowledge, but how are you going to get start applying your talents? 

8 tips to help start your sustainability manager strategy

So here are a few simple tips that I wish I had received back then to get me started as quickly as possible.   You have the skills for the role, your mission within the first few weeks is to start integrating and embedding yourself in the organisation and to build up an awareness of its key players.  Start to make friends and allies, ask questions and understand the mood within which strategic decisions are made, and what issues will be receptive targets for your audiences.

Week 1 – Show your face – Talk to everyone and Listen!

1 Learn the company’s language.

What form does the internal organisational culture take, does it comprise a dictatorial approach from top to bottom of the organisation, is it cultish with departments operating in tight non-communicative silos, how innovative and open to change has the business been in the past, etc.

Talk to as many organisational employees up and down the management chain. try and evaluate what style and manner resonates best with them.

2 Get your hands dirty.

Spend your first few days in the office getting acquainted and being available to meet others. As soon as you can, get out into the field, factory, and key sites to experience how the organisation is implementing any CSR and environmental policies. Is there a vision or mission statement – is it a living reality in the factory of just a ‘greenwash’ phrase within the marketing department?

3 Meet with the key internal staff as soon as possible.

Arrange informal conversations with the key managers and staff whose support and influence will be critical in delivering any future initiative.  Internal stakeholder management skills will be an important component of any future influencing and change programme. These are best arranged within the first few weeks into the job. 

Explain your role as the new sustainability manager and how you are on a fact finding visit to identify the key elements of sustainability risk and opportunity in thier world.

Listen, listen and listen whilst gauging how positive or negative they are about how your role can improve business growth, values or risk management internally.  Are these allies or blockers:

  • what ssues currently are of concern to them;
  • what will they be minded supporting;
  • what advice can they provide re threats and opportunities, market trends: etc.†

Month 1 – Establish your personal credentials, start to prioritise your findings and develop your future strategies.

4  Don’t be critical of your predecessors

As a new leader or manager learns more about the way an organisation thinks, functions or behaves before expressing any personal opinions. There will inevitably be horror stories and surprises.  No matter how strong the urge to question existing policy, initiatives, etc. Resist the urge to say anything negative about prior management steps or the managers who have sought to implement environmental or sustainability systems. 

It will be some time before you identify who has done what, and who their internal friends, allies and supporters are.  It is simpler just to be positive about the efforts you encounter (which will have been supported by others internally) as the critical building blocks for your own changes that will arise latter. 

5  Know your own weaknesses before criticising those of the Business 

Seek to identify where your strengths lie and where personal development, training or mentoring/coaching is still needed. This will enhance your effectiveness in the new role.  It is often easier to seek access to training programmes when taking upo a new role than subsequently for key areas. At the interview you may have promised the earth, those impressions are what you were recruited on and now is the time to reinforce and build up your leadership traits, understanding and in particular – change management skills to deliver them.

6   Prioritise and align

Prioritise what you uncover in terms of tangible business benefit and value, rather than intangible environmental risk.  In prioritising what needs to be done, be realistic about what is and isn’t achievable, and consider how they can align with the corporate plan (and its planning cycle) and seek advise on how to incorporate your future agendas into the planning cycle.

 Who can you turn to for support— perhaps an internal mentor, other senior managers or even the chairman of the board?  Don’t try to do it all on your own – that is a leadership weakness! 

90 Days in – Set out a vision with ideas for alignment, growth and value through business sustainability

7   Build a diverse circle of advisers.

New sustainability managers and leaders in any organisation need to surround themselves with a variety of viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments as they build up a mental template of how the cogs and wheels of the organisation turn – and at what speed!  This is critical as your role will often require more in the way of advocacy instead of ‘power’.

Help develop ideas, strategies and approached through the use of these networks. Seeking to win thier support and patronage if matters have to be referred upwards to other executives, or brought into operational activities. When mutually beneficial changes can be enacted quickly by agreement with other managers, it doesnt always require policy. That can come latter..

8   Have a Personal Sustainability Vision

Seek to rapidly acquire a vision of what you want to happen, building this up from the solid foundation of viewpoints, ideas, and temperaments.  You must own the vision and inspire others to follow it.  Sustainability visions developed by committee tend towards aspirational and consensual objectives, yours must be viewed and admired for being results orientated!

When building a visison, one tip is to start with the end in mind, by making the future direction of travel clearly outcome focussed – others can rapidly acquire a fully understanding, help guide strategic planning approaches and join in thier voices in nspiring & directing others in the organisations realignment towards greater sustainability.

Getting started is hard work, no wonder they say it takes an employee 3 years to understand how an organisation operates and thinks. Leading Green‘s training, coaching and mentoring services can provide essential support as you build up the confidence to start changing an organisation’s culture towards greater sustainability performance and social responsibility.

Take a look at our introductory training course in Sustainability Leadership

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