Dear Shannon: How can I measure the impact of my work?

Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: How can I measure the impact of my work?

Tape measure image by Laborant via Shutterstock.

Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wanna-be professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I'm an ethical trade manager at a fashion company who is passionate and committed to making a positive impact in the supply chain. But I find that I am a bit far removed from the on-the-ground impact I thought I could have in this sector because I'm bogged down in internal politics and operational issues. Not to mention I am based in the U.K. and the factories are all in Asia or abroad. How can I see lasting and tangible impact from my work without being in the field or in a grassroots type of job?

-- Sinead, Manchester

Dear Sinead,

The disconnectedness you speak of about your perceived impact is very common in the sustainability and international development fields. The word "impact" itself is difficult to define and measure, and creating the business case for strategic programs and proving the results of your committed work is equally difficult. I hear from many of my coaching clients that they want to be closer to individuals, communities and ecosystems in need. Those of us who are driven by the desire to make a difference, leave a legacy and make the world a better place for future generations are often not satisfied until we see the tangible results of that work.

What are results, anyway?

In sustainability and community investment, we often speak about impacts when we really mean outputs. Impacts are very difficult to measure because, by their very nature, they have a long-term life span that, if successful, will not be measureable for many years. Outputs are tangible and measurable in real time.

If, for example, you worked for a retail bank and your goal was to improve underprivileged youth's knowledge of money management, you might run a weeklong course in a disadvantaged neighborhood to show young people why budgeting matters and how to grow their money. The number of students successfully completing the course would be your output, but the impact may be how many of those students opened a bank account, kept it in the black and felt empowered by their ability to manage money.

The actual impact of your initiative may not be measured for five or even 10 years. It almost certainly won't be measured by your retail bank -- more likely a social science researcher, and it may not even be traced back to your initiative.

So be clear with yourself: Do results constitute outputs, impacts or both? If both, how are they linked? What do the timeframes look like? And how will you know when you see one?

Define results in your own terms

You'll need to get specific and define your expectations if you are ever going to feel like you've achieved them. Ask yourself, on a personal level: What must you see to know you've made an impact? Then think in quantifiable detail about the specific KPI outputs you are trying to get at and -- crucially -- map those measureables to the social or environmental "impact" they relate to. This will help you create a link between the reporting data and your own sense of "on-the-ground impact."

Output-oriented results could be measured in many ways, such as the number of sewing machinists at your company's factories that have benefitted from an in-factory healthcare program; a written commitment from factory owners to achieve a pre-defined gender balance ratio in middle management within a set timeframe; or the number of cotton farmers engaged with an extension program on best practice in pesticide use. Impact-related results could be defined as: improved soil quality and biodiversity in cotton growing areas within 10 years; improved quality of life and life expectancy among long-term factory staff; or a factory culture in which women freely contribute to management decisions.

Would such social and environmental results replenish your passion and commitment to your work?

How should your success be recognized?

Seeing results is great, but we often feel we have only made a difference if others formally recognize us for it. It's OK to seek recognition. After all, this is what fuels our desire to work harder and makes us feel motivated and appreciated. If you feel that your work isn't celebrated by managers or co-workers, you can help to instill a culture of reciprocal recognition in the workplace by taking the first step and being open and honest with your boss and co-workers about the work they do well.

But it's also OK to recognize your own hard work. To help you validate and clarify your successes, try this simple tool. Take a blank piece of paper and draw three columns with these headers:

1. Situation: This is the problem you were trying to fix.
2. Action: This is what you achieved through using specific skills.
3. Result: This is what came out of those actions.

This is the standard way to present your achievements in a competency-based interview. By doing this on a monthly basis, you'll find at the end of the year that you have 12 impact-linked, proven achievements. It may surprise you to actually see just how much you've done.

If this still leaves you dissatisfied, in terms of seeing real-life results to the global problems you entered this industry to address, consider taking your next vacation to Asia and visiting the factories you're working with. What better way to recognize the results of your efforts? Perhaps your company will support you by including you on a planned factory visit.

If a physical visit is unrealistic, reach out to the NGOs and consultants on the ground in your sector and try to get a sense of the personal stories behind the quantifiable data. These stories could turn out to be a great communication tool to explain your work to internal and external stakeholders, as well as bring you closer to the causes you're trying to support.

Will your legacy be in the job or in your personal brand?

In all of this, it's important to investigate your own motives and ask why you want to have an impact. Is it related to your legacy, your ego, your personal brand, altruistic desires or a combination of these things?

Be honest with yourself. There's no shame in admitting you want to improve the world, your professional marketability and your sense of self-worth -- those things are not mutually exclusive. The result of this investigation might show you that you actually don’t need to be on the ground doing hands-on development work to be able to implement lasting change.

Perhaps the work you're already doing is already having more of an impact than you realize. Perhaps, by personalizing that impact through personal stories or a site visit, you'll feel closer to it. Perhaps you'll find that your greatest sense of satisfaction comes from leveraging your company brand to write about thought leadership on ethical trade in fashion, motivating others to measure their outputs and impacts. That in and of itself could be your contribution.

Spell out your thoughts on paper if you can. It's always helpful to talk them through with a friend, colleague or coach who can challenge you. I wish you the very best of luck in addressing these issues and finding satisfaction in your work. Let me know how it goes.

Tape measure image by Laborant via Shutterstock.