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

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Your first few days in a new job are always daunting, especially when you have been recruited to develop the existing culture towards greater sustainability by enacting a change in the organisation towards a business model that will be new, challenging and will need even the most obstructive manager to change pathways.

One of the first major environmental roles I took on was withina large Scotttish Power Utility with growing interests in England, the US and in the water utility sector.  They had decided to recruit a new environmental team to support organisational and operational activities within thier Technology Division.  The interview to say the least had been a strange experience, as for over an hour they asked few questions but talking directly at me listing issues they now recognised to be threats to the business. I nodded and looked wise, but was rarely asked how I would seek to handle them if employed. There was clearly 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 and we were unlikely to receive any further advice from the senior executive in charge of us.  His instructions on our first day were simply ‘Go and do something Environmental!’

Well we certainly achieved that, with ScottishPower becoming the first UK utility to gain ISO 14001 subsequently in both Scotland and England, winning numerous CSR awards and developing a strategic approach to environmental impact assessment that is still a successful model 30 years later.

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 that area, 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 started applying your talents is the first order of the day. 

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 within the 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.

Talk to the organisations employees in a style and manner that resonates 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, other locations and experience how the organisation is implementing its CSR and environmental policies. Is there a vision or mission statement – is it a living reality of just ‘greenwash’?

3 Meet with the crucial 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.  These are best arranged within the first few weeks into the job. 

Listen, listen, 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, there will inevitably be surprises.  No matter how strong the urge to question previous policy, initiatives, etc resist the urge to say anything negative about the previous 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 the organisations. 

Seek to identify where your strengths lie and where personal development, training or mentoring/coaching is still needed to enhance your effectiveness in the new role.  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

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 weakness! 

90 Days in – Start setting out your personal vision and ideas for alignment, growth and value through sustainability

7   Build a diverse circle of advisers.

New 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 if beneficial changes can be enacted quickly by mutual agreement with other managers.

8   Have a Personal 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.  Sustainability visions developed by committee tend towards aspirational and consensual, 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 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.

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