Head and Heart: Gaining Support For Sustainability

Speakers Share Wisdom on Communicating Values

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Annemarie Kalson is program manager of Sustain Dane's Sustainable Business Initiative in Madison, Wis.

Jessica Lerner is interim executive director of Sustain Dane in Madison, Wis.

Jessica Lerner

Brian Schultes is director of facilities management at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa.

Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 3:10 pm

Making a personal commitment to sustainability is simple, but there's only so much that even the most dedicated hybrid-driving recycler can accomplish alone. And trying to get a workplace or a community behind sustainability efforts can feel like an uphill battle.

The key, according to presenters at the 6th annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference, held recently in Dubuque, Iowa, is to involve both the heart and the mind -- by presenting a plan rooted in personal values and supported by sound business research.

"It can be a wonderful gift if your upper management is of like mind and like intention with you," said Annemarie Kalson. "But it can be a challenge and a learning experience if they're not."

Kalson, program manager of the Sustainable Business Initiative of Sustain Dane, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wis., spoke at a session on “Creating a Culture of Sustainability In Your Community.” People who contact her have already decided to set a goal of carrying out their business in a more sustainable way. But even when that step has already been taken, it can be difficult and time-consuming to get the agreement of everyone who has the power to make changes.

When someone makes a decision to pursue sustainability, Kalson said, "we've really committed to a change in how we do our business, how our organization is run." And that means securing the support of upper management can be a challenge.

Her colleague, Sustain Dane's interim Executive Director Jessica Lerner, said one important step is to prepare a detailed plan that examines your proposal in light of solid business values such as risk reduction and return on investment. Often a step towards sustainability has a higher upfront cost than doing things the conventional way, but can be shown to reduce costs in the long run, or to have value in assuring compliance with regulations. And it's very common for customers to see sustainability as a positive value.

The Sustainable Business Initiative provides a worksheet that helps its clients speak the language of management, expressing the benefits that a company can gain from taking even a small step toward a more sustainable way of doing business.

"One of my favorite stories around a solid business case comes from a facilities manager of a very large pharmaceutical (company) in Madison," Lerner said. He had grown frustrated as his efforts to justify the cost of installing a new, better-insulated roof had not been successful. "Then he got a call about a water spill on the top floor. He walks in, and there's a bucket of water next to a $4 million dollar piece of equipment." Beyond simply wasting energy, his inadequate roof was also putting the company's expensive equipment at risk.

So getting the support of decision-makers depends upon being able to communicate a solid logical argument. But it also depends on being able to bring your own values in line with the values of those who run your organization -- and communicate with them in terms of what they hold most dear.

"Everybody in the universe cares about one value statement more than others," Lerner said. "You need to communicate to that value statement ... with the right phrasings, to their point, using their language."

This won't necessarily come easily, because everyone's values are different, and people don't come with footnotes. "Spend some time listening and observing," Lerner said. "Do some intel beforehand." A business owner who is in business to preserve a community tradition is going to do things for different reasons than one who is focused primarily on increasing shareholder value.

Where does it start? With your own fundamental values, the ones that are the reason you're interested in improving sustainability to start with.

Brian Schultes, director of facilities management at Clarke University in Dubuque, has long been interested in increasing sustainability ("It's just smart operations, that's all it is," he said), but he hasn't always known, or been able to communicate, why. But in examining his proposals for a way to present them to his managers, he began examining his own life and the choices that have led him to where he is.

"Did anybody here grow up on a farm?" he asked those attending the session. "Anybody ever have to pull down an old building and pull nails from that lumber so you could re-use it? That's sustainability." And his own life as the son of a farmer, watching neighbors lose their land in the farm crisis of the 1980s, combined with an innovation-focused education to convince him to help his organization do things the sustainable way.

"You don't have to couch it in terms of tree-hugging or saving the earth or climate change," he said. "It's just smart operations, going back to what Grandma and Grandpa taught you. ... But if it's not connected to my values, I'm going to see it as just another thing my boss wants me to do."

The thought he put into his own value system made it easier to communicate it to decision-makers. But that's not the last bit of communication needed. "I don't think we give a lot of attention to how we train people and how we present our organization to new hires," he said. "At Clarke, we've started doing new-hire orientation talking about why sustainability is important to us. We also do that with our students at the beginning of the school year ... connecting what they're doing to the broader picture."

Schultes, Lerner, and Kalson all agreed that one thing a sustainability advocate needs in the business world is patience.

"What I hear, when people ask, 'How do I convince my supervisors? How do I get them on board,' is, 'What's the silver bullet? What are the three magic words that if I say them in the right order it will convince somebody? And how do I get the change to happen tomorrow?’" Kalson said. "It's unrealistic. ... Sometimes it's going to be a long haul."

"The key," Lerner said, "is that you have to go slow to go fast."

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