How to Create Change in a Conservative Culture

How to Create Change in a Conservative Culture

The debate is over. Evidence abounds that companies can improve their financial bottom line by looking out for the other two-thirds of their triple bottom line. So if sustainability makes so much sense, why isn't everyone doing it?

The hurdle is not the hard facts so much as the soft ones. Companies, like people, have personalities. Some are progressive, but most are conservative. When it comes to sustainability, the progressives get a lot of press, but in reality, they are the exceptions to the rule.

I'm no stranger to working in a conservative culture. Before launching a sustainability consulting practice, I was a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM, working within industries like oil and gas and accounting. As a sustainability consultant, my first clients included law firms, also conservative by nature. Ready to barrel down the green superhighway at top speed, I created green plans that would take them from zero to 60, only to find out they were more content to creep along in the slow lane.

The issue wasn't in figuring out what to do. There are a number of well-documented third-party certification programs that can deliver demonstrable value through cost-savings measures that reduce environmental impact and increase brand awareness. The real challenge in greening a conservative culture lies in bridging the chasm between "progressives" and "conservatives."

The Six Keys to Driving Change in a Conservative Corporate Culture 1. Top-level support.
2. Management-level and administrative support.
3. Minimal risk.
4. A clear path.
5. Bottom-line value.
6. Political awareness.

Read the whole story to find out how these six keys can make all the difference when trying to drive sustainability at work.
Conservatives are cautious; progressives throw caution to the wind. Conservatives are grounded in reality; progressives are planted in possibility. Although these are broad generalizations, in today's highly charged political environment, any issue, particularly a heated one like energy, is subject to sweeping generalizations and half-truths.

So how do we chart a course for change within a conservative culture without being labeled as progressive -- and potentially disregarded as a result? That question was on my mind when I met Dan Northcut.

Dan is the Director of Environmental Studies at St. Mark's School of Texas, a private preparatory school for boys founded in Dallas in 1906. Dan has been with the school for over 20 years. In fact, if you count the six years he spent there as a student, you could say he's been there for nearly 30 years.

During that time Dan has seen a lot. He remembers the late seventies when conserving energy was considered patriotic. To do its part, the school removed every other bulb from the light fixtures in its hallways and classrooms. Then came the 1980s. The solar panels were removed from the White House and the zeal for energy conservation in America was on the wane. Nearly two decades of relatively cheap energy followed.

Fast forward to 2008. Conservation has once again become a hot topic in the national discourse, prompting companies to take a fresh look at conservation practices. But while the words "going green" roll of the tongue with ease, rolling out green initiatives that reduce greenhouse gases is not so easy. Many organizations today pay lip service to sustainability while only a few are making genuine investments to make facilities and operations more efficient.

So what sets St. Mark's School of Texas apart? A proactive, comprehensive approach to the 21st century realities of energy insecurity and climate change, driven by broad support from stakeholder groups, a spirit of leadership among its students, and the personal commitment of people like Dan Northcut, who also serves as the school's environmental director.

During the past two years, St. Mark's has implemented a single-stream recycling program and has switched its power source to a blend of 30-percent renewable energy, setting a goal to increase that amount by 10 percent each year. Dan's AP Environmental Science elective course is so popular that the school added a second section. An environmental component is also being integrated into the curriculum of the lower school, giving younger students exposure to sustainability concepts at an early age. Even the teachers' lounge reflects eco-consciousness, now that Styrofoam cups have been replaced with ceramic mugs bearing St. Mark's special green branding.

The most significant reflection of St. Mark's commitment is the Board of Trustees' approval of LEED certification for the two new buildings undergoing construction. This decision added just two percent more to the construction cost. St. Mark's will recover this within approximately 10 years -- less if the cost of energy rises -- with the added benefits of a healthier indoor environment.

The school's eco-improvements, which began two decades ago with Dan, now have the support of teachers, administration, students, parents, and the board. How one person helped drive change at St. Mark's presents a roadmap any change agent can follow in a conservative culture.

Although Dan has a longer history in his organization than the typical employee in a company, longevity has less to do with his success than the vital qualities of personal commitment, a penchant for education, a collaborative approach, and sheer enthusiasm. The green programs that gain traction, when compared to the ones that produce lackluster results, are created through one person or team exhibiting these traits. Let's take a closer look at these qualities in terms of Dan's experience:
  1. Personal Commitment. As the Director of Environmental Studies, Dan demonstrates knowledge of ecology and conservation on a daily basis. He also walks his own talk by living a green lifestyle. Nobody is suspicious of his motives.
  2. Education. Conservatives don't want to be sold to, but they do want to be informed. What tends to hold people back, even CEOs, from jumping into new territory are concerns that they can't quite articulate. People need to develop a comfort level with green ideas. For the Headmaster, Dan created a "green print" plan, prioritizing and budgeting every element of his strategy. Dan engages the students through his environmental science classes, the administration through practical modifications for a greener campus, the parents through newsletters, and the community through free events such as movie festivals featuring eco-oriented documentaries.
  3. Collaboration. Dan is just one guy. As with any organization, there exists at St. Mark's a number of spheres of influence: students, parents, administrators, and board members. By working with these groups to address their specific concerns or interests, Dan is not pushing an agenda but providing a service. He's garnering buy-in throughout the process by asking influential people to help support these programs.
  4. Enthusiasm. Dan has fun. He likes people and seeks to understand them. Dan's persistence is tempered by his enthusiasm, so that even when he urges people to make green changes, he does so without annoying them. Enthusiasm is the antidote to burnout for anyone steering a green initiative inside a change-resistant culture.
Having the right people in place is half the battle. The other half involves strategy. To drive progress in a conservative culture, you must demonstrate the following:
  1. Top-level support. While a progressive culture will take grass roots efforts seriously, a conservative culture is more likely to follow the direction of top-level leadership. When the St. Mark's Board of Trustees decided that building its new facilities to LEED standards was the right thing to do, the school's green program finally got some teeth. Sustainability went from being "Dan's project" to becoming a core value of the organization.
  2. Management-level and administrative support. A major stumbling block in organizations that fulfill the first prerequisite is failure to engage other rungs of employees. Engaging stakeholders requires a sincere statement backed by action on the part of the leader, as well as education and incentives to motivate staff that may be reticent to support "progressive" ideas.
  3. Minimal risk. Any initiative perceived as a risk to the brand will not gain support.
  4. A clear path. Conservative cultures are not innovative by nature. By sharing case studies of similar companies' sustainability initiatives, change agents can offer a concrete path to follow. Reputable third-party certifications like Energy Star also offer a step-by-step plan as well as promotional materials and opportunities for recognition.
  5. Bottom-line value. The numbers have to demonstrate a relatively short payback period with a clear ROI.
  6. Political awareness. Know the culture. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. Sometimes you can have everything else in place and the plan can still fall flat. Never underestimate the importance of hierarchy in the planning stage. Know your audience. If you don't engage the right people early on, they will not appreciate the value of a sustainability plan that may require funds or behavioral changes, even if the numbers work on paper.
As specialized as the sustainability field is becoming, the gulf between where the experts are heading and where everyone else still remains continues to widen. In trying to solve complex problems, we create solutions that make sustainability ever more confusing for conservative cultures to embrace. Already they must wade through scores of certifications and requirements that can resemble regulations to the less informed. The result is stagnation, frustration, and inertia.

In order to get green off the ground within a change-resistant culture, try going back to basics. Even a program as simple as the three R's: reduce, reuse and recycle, can be effective. Companies that put into place a simple but measurable program may see enough positive evidence to inspire more strategic actions down the road. Slow and steady wins the race.

Conservation is still a conservative value, so why the pushback from conservative cultures? The reality is that most companies, like people, don't make decisions according to their values as much as their circumstances, especially in uncertain times. In this case, sustainability enthusiasts might dispense with idealism and try Dan's pragmatic approach, which he succinctly summarizes in the words of Harry Truman, "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes create and execute green strategies to reduce costs and bolster their brand. For more information, visit