November, 2018 I’ll never forget the time I pitched an idea to my SVP on a cost-effective way to green our supply chain. Armed with all the numbers and scenarios, ideas on how to make it relatively easy, projections on what the biz could gain, and endorsement from the procurement team, I was feeling pretty good. Until I walked into his office, where he greeted me with a not-so-subtle sneer and a “Now what do you want?” without looking up from the papers on his desk.
I bet most of you who work in corporate sustainability can relate. Some of your colleagues just think of you as a cost-center, someone who’s going to make extra work for them on an issue they don’t care about, an outsider who has no business meddling in their business. And somehow, without having any formal authority over them, you’ve got to get these folks to not only take your call but to ultimately buy into the goals and co-create the solutions. Working in this environment can be tough and disheartening. But there are ways to smooth the path.
I spoke to a friend (let’s call him Joe) who has a sustainability role in large global corporation that makes thousands of products. Joe needs to persuade his colleagues to change everything from how they design products to who they sell to. His colleagues sit in other parts of the organization and are often in roles way above his pay-grade.
He’s enjoyed success in gaining their buy-in. In fact, recently, over the course of a tense 1.5 hour meeting, he and his boss convinced several business leaders in his company to agree on a new product sustainability metric. He graciously shared what worked: Understand their goals and metrics and make arguments on what they are personally incentivized to deliver. Use “business empathy” – put yourself in their shoes and understand what they get evaluated for on their performance review. Recognize the case varies by role: talk about reducing cost and diversifying supply chain to an ops person and increasing sales to the account people Make it as easy as possible ahead of time for them to say yes – do the leg-work, anticipate their questions and have answers. Show them what the process will look like and how to de-risk the change. Give them an out. Go for easy wins and build on what they are already doing so they feel like change is possible.
Show them where they are already changing and might not recognize it, and how this will smooth their path going forward Joe is a pretty zen guy, much more than me. I asked him how he kept his cool on that phone call, with so much push-back. He said he felt confident because he had a great case and understood what the folks on the line needed to make the change.
I asked if he ever struggled with colleagues, even when he had a solid pitch. He mentioned that some people just cannot handle change unless they understand every step of the way forward, which is tough given all the unknowns out there in this complicated world. That can be frustrating and there’s not much to do with someone like that but find allies who are a bit more risk-tolerant and willing to back him up. And sometimes, Joe admitted, he wants to shake people by the shoulders when all the pieces are in place and it feels like they are just saying no because they have too much on their plate.
When that happens, he tries to make things easier, take some of their load off, take a step back and ask lots of questions. He’s comfortable having open, honest conversations and digging into what is not being said. He also acknowledges that sometimes the timing just isn’t right and if you wait a few months to make the same request, you can have success. Joe seems to work in a relatively enlightened workplace. I asked him if everyone was as collaborative and open as he is. “No! Lot’s of people are cynics, or selfish, or apathetic.” he responded. The way he approaches the cynics, like with others, is to start with what is important to them and make what you do about helping them. You may never win them over, so find and work with the allies. Like Joe said, “If you have a good reputation, that you are good to work with and people like to work with you, the cynics don’t matter as much.”