What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Early in the movie Cool Hand Luke, the guard played by Strother Martin utters the oft quoted line as he assesses the differences in understanding between himself and Paul Newman. While the context is different, a "failure to communicate" represents one of the biggest challenges facing sustainability leaders today.

As part of the GreenBiz Intelligence unit's ongoing research, I recently talked with more than 100 senior sustainability and environmental executives about a wide range of topics. Many of these conversations pointed to the existence of a "language barrier" when it comes to discussing sustainability initiatives both inside a company as well as with the outside world of customers, suppliers, investors, and regulators. In Joel Makower's new book Strategies for the Green Economy, he refers to this as a dysfunctional conversation, one where "it is almost impossible to create a workable green strategy that meets the expectations of a confused and cynical marketplace."

Many of the executives I talked with feel bombarded by sound bites and theories that overshadow the deep analysis and case studies they need. The rise in positive green initiatives is being countered by a parallel growth in vague terminology. One of the challenges for business leaders is sorting through what could easily be viewed as sustainability Esperanto, an interesting language that few understand or speak.

As one senior executive from a high tech company noted "any time you are tempted to use an easy term like green or carbon footprint, write what you really mean. Loose phrases obfuscate what people are really trying to say." Unless, of course, you're a member of that company's marketing department. And therein lies the challenge as well as the opportunity. While green may be the right word for their customers, it may leave people in quality control scratching their heads. To address this, leaders need to think of themselves as something akin to chief translation officers. Only they can take up the task to provide context and direction for external and internal communication.

The head of EHS for a large manufacturer shared his experiences in coming to the realization of how important this was to his role. "During the formation of our senior committee, we spent two hours on the mission statement for the [sustainability] group. While I thought this was a little long, it was important for the other senior executives to start internalizing what this was going to mean to them, their groups, and the company -- that this is more process than message. When filtered through the example of our lean program to eliminate waste, we started to see light bulbs go off."

Green leadership requires exceptional translation skills -- but these can form the basis for turning goals into actions, to create processes from aspirations, and to successfully manage the multiple streams of conversations between and among stakeholders. One example of how this approach is changing the ways companies communicate can be viewed through the evolution of corporate reporting. While cynics may view corporate citizenship or sustainability reports as a means of appeasing NGOs and socially responsible investors, most of the executives I talked with viewed it as another channel to help educate employees and raise awareness internally.

At a time when most companies still face challenges making sustainability themes heard and understood in their organizations, it is important for executives to develop a clear and consistent set of terms and definitions that balance their corporate values and the industries in which they operate. Obviously, senior executive support is critical and is a key factor in any program's success. But here's what EHS and sustainability leaders can do immediately:

  • Set targets. Employees want to know what they're shooting for and setting goals provides you with a way to explain how performance will be measured and what the benefits are to both the company and the environment.
  • Celebrate wins. Search out improvements and describe how the department's success works toward meeting the company's goals. By using the department's language to promote success (procurement speaks differently from manufacturing or marketing) it helps the people within that department understand what they can do.
  • Make it personal. Look for ways to illustrate how actions at home as well as work can have a collective impact. While changing out one home's light bulbs doesn't do much, using company newsletters to illustrate the impact if every employee makes the same gesture.
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