The fabled C-suite has now largely switched on to the environmental debate with 93% of Chief Executives now viewing sustainability as "important to their company's future success", according to the UN. And as I explain out in my recent book, The Green Executive, some business leaders like the late Ray Anderson of InterfaceFLOR and Sir Stuart Rose (now ex-) of Marks & Spencer have streaked ahead of the pack and are making sustainability a key plank of their business strategy.
Down at the coal face, meanwhile, many organisations also have vibrant networks of green champions and environmental volunteers. But the "green" message has had real difficulty penetrating that fabled bastion of true organisational power: middle management.
The problem is largely historical. For decades, environmental management has been the preserve of the Environmental Manager – or more often the much pressed Safety, Health and Environmental (SHE) Manager. These guys have lots of responsibility – including keeping their bosses out of jail – but precious little authority. So if you are an Operations Manager or a Production Manager and someone asks you a green question, it is always tempting to try and shunt it towards the SHE Manager.
I found this to my cost when, years ago, I had a Government contract to conduct half day waste minimisation visits to companies. Typically it would be the SHE manager who invited me in, but he or she would be perplexed when I refused to restrict my visit to the skips and instead tracked waste back to its source and asked awkward questions starting with "why…?".
There was always a point where the SHE manager would say "well, we'll have to go and ask the production manager about that." Almost every time we entered that manager's office, we walked straight into a very frosty reception. It was always made clear that this bearded greenie with his awkward questions was very unwelcome and I rarely got anything out of the exchange.
Sustainability is now permeating out across organisations, much in the same way as quality became everyone's responsibility under the Total Quality Management revolution. This means that middle management needs to take on responsibility for delivery of sustainability improvements. But they are, as we have seen, the toughest nut to crack.
The first thing you need to do is put yourself in the position of a middle manager and ask, what are your priorities? The typical answers are meeting performance targets, career prospects and time/workload management. This means you will not engage with middle management by appealing to their better nature or trying to distract them from their priorities with additional jobs.
The best approach is to integrate appropriate sustainability targets into each manager's performance indicators and make it clear that these are just as important to meet as any other when it comes to career progression.
This is turn means you need to work with Human Resources to structure job descriptions and the performance management system appropriately. Which means you have to win HR over first. Which is another story entirely . . .