How to Create a Culture of Change

The Sustainable MBA

How to Create a Culture of Change

Change. We hear the word frequently -- political change, changes in the economy, climate change. Lately, I am reminded of a professor who used to tell us, "You can't expect someone to act or react the way you want them to... the only person you have change over is yourself." So, in these challenging times, how do we get the world to change when it comes to implementing sustainability practices? We don't. We change. We lead by example. We invest in our human capital and adhere to our company values -- and we remain authentic. We inspire, educate, communicate the three tenets of sustainability -- environmental, economic, and social -- and their interconnectivity throughout the company, and then we engage with our stakeholders.

The human dimension may get labeled as the softer side of sustainability -- often the toughest tenet to measure, and sometimes the most difficult to implement. But when pursued with integrity, it is the driving force behind the change that is required in today's world. People make data meaningful, find the opportunities in the challenges, and take action with innovation and creativity. So what are some ways to create a culture of change? We'll take a brief look at how shifting to a culture of sustainability requires relevance, meaning and commitment.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" -- make the intangible relevant

Gandhi's words are inspiring and remind us of the importance of the human spirit and drive to take action. The momentum, motivation and sheer determination of employees to embrace an idea and make it come to life may not always be measured by an organization, but the return on investment from boosts in morale and productivity, as well as company reputation, can be illuminating.

Wal-Mart, for example, created a paradigm shift by engaging its U.S. employee base with the Personal Sustainability Project (PSP) concept. The associate-driven program is voluntary and focuses on making sustainability accessible and relevant to employees and their ,communities. and as noted in their September, 2007 online fact sheet, "Sustainability Lives in Wal-Mart Culture" [PDF]. The largest company in the world launched the program in 2007 and by September of that same year, 480,000 Wal-Mart associates had adopted a PSP. The U.S. program has been so successful that Wal-Mart plans to expand it internationally. They defined sustainability to make it accessible to their employees, helping them connect personal and corporate missions to make a difference for their own health and the health of the planet.

How do we make sustainability relevant to employees? Know them. Communicate widely and often the significance of sustainability to your business, and how they are a crucial part of the plan. Take the pulse of your company first, and ask these three questions:

  1. What does sustainability mean to you?
  2. How does it apply to you and your daily work/life decisions?
  3. What would you like to see happen in the company to support sustainability?

Use the responses to learn about your employees and where their understanding of sustainability rests. The baseline will help to derive next steps in developing any changes in culture, which will most likely include making sustainability not only relevant, but meaningful to them, as well.

Rise to the challenge

"Nothing changes behavior like price," extolled a businessman on the commuter train heading home last week. How true, especially in times of uncertainty. Sustainability is often perceived as a cost to companies -- an additional layer to deal with when it comes to implementation -- a price to be paid. But it is perhaps our greatest liability as business leaders if we are not proactive in addressing sustainability -- particularly before the resources run out or new regulations force us to change how we do business. When we begin a shift in culture, employees may ask, "What's in it for me?" This is the opportunity amidst the challenge: creating meaning and communicating it well.

Just as the authors of the book Making Meaning describe the power of creating meaningful experiences for customers as "the key to creating deep and lasting loyalty," I pose that creating the same sense of meaning and purpose for employees inspires changes in behavior and increases support of sustainability principles and practices.

If we help employees connect to their values -- to what is meaningful to them -- then we will be on our way to creating a culture of change. Communicating the message clearly and often helps reinforce the change; offering opportunities for employees to share their expertise and relate their stories of sustainability keeps the fire burning.

Clif Bar identifies with its roots in cycling and the outdoors and promotes its 5 Aspirations, which include sustaining its people and creating an environment "where people can live life to the fullest." They encourage work-life balance with greening the planet events and company-sponsored cycling and running teams. The company creates opportunities for its employees -- and other stakeholders -- by capturing what is important to them. They evoke a spirit of action and compassion that is demonstrated through, and by, their employees. That sense of meaning leads to commitment.

"Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality"

These stirring worlds from Abraham Lincoln are directly applicable to sustainability issues today. Commitment not only transforms promises, it also creates credibility. When employees believe in their company's sustainability mission, and they are committed to taking action, stakeholder trust increases. Employee commitment means that their actions and those of their company matter. AVEDA exemplifies its commitment through its Guiding Principles. Its strong environmental sustainability plan encourages their employees, distributors and suppliers to "carry out their commitment at the individual level..." AVEDA has successfully created credibility with its stakeholders through corporate and individual commitment.

Companies that invest in sustainability demonstrate commitment and thus inspire action through a variety of ways including services, programs and volunteer activities. The Walt Disney Company is well known for creating meaningful experiences for their theme park guests, but it also has a comprehensive sustainability plan that elevates commitment to the environment and the preservation of natural resources.

Disney created a culture of change when it developed the Environmentality brand to capture its commitment to the environment and natural resources. Employees and other stakeholders engage in a variety of services, activities and programs that transform promises for change into reality. One such program is Disney's Environmentality Challenge in which Disney collaborates with California teachers and environmental organizations to teach school children about the environment and how they can make a difference. Increasing employee involvement and positively impacting communities are well defined tenets of the Environmentality brand. The commitment to creating change that is demonstrated by the brand -- and Disney's employees -- is significant and meaningful.

Without commitment within an organization, the mission and message are threatened. Recently the media has been alive with examples of companies that have produced "green" messages to jump on the sustainability wagon. Even with sincere intentions, many of these companies have been branded as "greenwashing" because their message doesn't resonate with company values or actions. Commitment is the key in realizing the change in culture necessary to embody sustainability.

The time for action is now

The human dimension of sustainability is powerful. The world is changing, and our employees and stakeholders want to understand how sustainability is relevant to them, how their contributions have meaning, and how our commitment to sustainable principles is strong. Change can take time, and at times be tough and complex. But it is in the doing that we will find the answers.

Jennifer Beauchamp is the Global Sustainability Specialist at Mattel, Inc. She focuses on sustainability strategy, communication and employee engagement. Previously, she was Director of Sustainability at Creyr Publishing, Inc. and has over 16 years of combined experience working in higher education. Jennifer holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management.

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