The Inside View

The 3 Ps for leading the insanity of sustainability

ShutterstockRashevskyi Viacheslav

I can’t wait to get to work. What a life. They pay me for this? I’m making really good progress on the climate change plan.

Gotta see Mary first thing. She’s an obstacle. Asking way too many questions about the climate change plan.

That meeting with our supplier yesterday went well. They like the environmental scorecard. Three years, finally! I wonder how we could share best practices with other suppliers?

With Mary, her questions are legit. I need more time to research. I better reschedule for next week. I’ll be more prepared.

This was my life in the sustainability world. I’m not even five minutes through the door, and I’m plotting how to handle the twists and turns of my day.

One minute I’m hopeful, sky-high.

The next I’m tormented. Why are things going so snail-slow?

Then I feel peaceful. Like time has stopped. I think: Sustainability work is so fulfilling and motivating.

I bet this is familiar to those that lead corporate sustainability programs, as I used to do.

Sanity in a schizoid role

In the beginning of my sustainability career, I didn’t like these contrary and opposing forces until I realized that sustainability leadership is anything but harmonious, especially as you lead big changes. You are in charge of much, yet have direct responsibility for little. I see many sustainability professionals living in this discomfort zone, needing help to find sanity in a schizoid role.

Eventually I figured out that I needed to accept and embrace the natural insanity required to lead a sustainability mindset in the company, not a function. It’s not normally advisable to live three personalities at once, but that’s my advice.

As soon as you embrace the 3 P’s — Passion, Patience and Persistence — you will experience a wonderful freedom and mental relaxation that will drive your performance to the next level.

1. You lead with Passion, with extreme conviction that spreads like sunshine.

2. You need Patience. Things take time. Think of the heron that endlessly stands in one place, waiting for his prey.

3. Persistence is essential to keep things moving. I read an inspiring book, "The Wright Brothers," by David McCullough. Orville and Wilbur must have failed hundreds of times. Their handmade airplanes crashed and crumbled, and yet they would arrive in their shop the next day, bright and cheery, and start work on their next iteration.

Our profession obviously leads with Passion. Let passion be the engine that runs your system at 100 mph, even though it’s as quiet as an electric car. Don’t be obvious. People naturally will sense your genuine commitment. But never let up on your passion. It’s our fuel.

There is no better feeling than making a difference in the world, is there? Yet many are blinded and bounded by their overflowing passion, rubbing colleagues the wrong way, not connecting with peers in the practical business cases we need to advance and people we need to convince. Others don’t get on board so quickly, so we get cynical and pessimistic. That’s why we need Patience, too.

Patience doesn’t mean passiveness. Patience means you realize that nothing big is going to happen in your organization without the time needed to engage and connect with internal and external stakeholders, truly listening and adapting their input. "Connect" is not like plugging in the phone to recharge. Connections lead to trust; you cannot lead unless your colleagues trust you. So when you go to meetings, yes, push to get decisions made, but learn something about the other person and keep building that relationship.

In our work, like the Wrights, we will fail sometimes and have to go at it again. Don’t blame others. Figure out how you and your team could have done better. Patience is not the antithesis of Passion, but the street that Passion needs to take to get to the good we seek. On the other hand, we can’t lollygag and wait forever. I had a boss who in my annual review gave me demerits every year for doing too much internal vetting. He wanted me to get more stuff done. That’s why we have to be relentlessly Persistent.

Through the morass

As we travel this road of Patience, we equally need to push work along, sometimes an inch at a time. Person by person. Call by call. Email follow-up. New analysis. Persistence is the hands and feet that claw our way through the morass, the barriers.

Persistence in the face of conflict can be particularly challenging. Don’t take conflict as a bad force. It’s good and needed. Without conflict, can you imagine any athlete getting any better? Yes, you will take two steps backward, but remember you have taken three steps forward. Stay positive and optimistic, no matter what. It’s easy to get negative. Let it out quickly and get back on the positive track. People want to follow committed, enthusiastic leaders. Do the internal and external vetting, but take more risks.

My first great boss at McDonald’s would say, "Ask for forgiveness, not permission." He also said if you form a committee to choose the carpeting, you’ll get beige carpeting.

All this leads in a circular path back to the Passion that drives us as sustainability leaders. Passion to inspire, to go contrary to the status quo, to be the one in the room to question a current practice, and to advocate for environmental and social progress and breakthroughs.

Live the 3P’s — Passion, Patience and Persistence — all at once, steadfastly. It will keep you sane and make you a better sustainability leader.