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Getting the Most Out of Sustainability Report Interviews

Elaine Cohen
Elaine Cohen | Tuesday December 31st, 2013 | 1 Comment

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As a Sustainability Reporting Consultant, one of the regular, most fascinating features of our role is the gathering of information within a company about advances in sustainability performance.

This often requires interviewing many individuals, mainly executives and managers. Sometimes this is challenging, as many people in many organizations don’t quite understand why they have been selected for a “Sustainability Report Interview” or what their role has to do with sustainability. Often they are just doing their job, and the connection between their day-to-day and sustainability is not explicit. Others are ready for the conversation, which is often an annual event, and even look forward to it. Some even do a little preparation! As we work with several companies working with different reporting cycles, I find that that I am part of such conversations almost all the time as a regular feature of my job. I find that it’s also one of the most useful parts of our job, as far as the organization is concerned, although they might not realize it.

In an ideal world, where Sustainable Business Strategy is articulated, implemented, communicated and part of the way of life in any company, you would expect that everyone would know their connection to the sustainability agenda and why it’s important. The reality is that, even in companies where sustainability is just about as embedded as you can get, people still have trouble seeing linking their their roles to the organization’s overall positive impacts. The Sustainability Report Interview is one tool among several that can help reinforce and refresh sustainability thinking and drive action in the organization. 
There are several reasons that these conversations are always important.

The Sustainability Report Interview is an Art Form rather than just another plain ole conversation. It takes a certain knowledge and skill to perform a Sustainability Report Interview well and get the most out of a short conversation.The Sustainability Report Interview has several objectives and becomes a powerful (and fascinating) part of the reporting process. It can make a big contribution to advancing sustainability awareness, understanding and practice in any company, including smaller companies. We always try to interview as wide as possible a range of individuals in any company, in order to gather and cross-validate information and ensure we have a rounded understanding of performance, activities and issues. This is the nuts and bolts of sustainability reporting. It is often overlooked as a value-adding element in the sustainability reporting process.The key things we try to do in Sustainability Report Interviews are:

Gather Insights and Information

This is the clear, stated objective of any Sustainability Report Interview. We aim to gather insights and information about sustainability performance in the course of the reporting year, within the scope of the interviewee’s role and responsibilities. The idea is to distill the precise contribution to social and environmental impacts (positive and negative), from a range of information about the interviewee’s role and performance. At this point we do not restrict ourselves to specific information that we think may be relevant to the sustainability report. Rather, we aim to gain deep understanding of what was done and why and an appreciation of the context in which such activities were undertaken. We look for performance, stories, case studies and future plans and targets.

Identify Sustainability Practice 

The very process of the interview causes the interviewee to think about her or his role through a sustainability lens. If you ask most managers in most organizations outright what have they done to advance sustainability, they don’t come up with very much. At best, they may start talking about some volunteer activity or other. By asking them about their business activities, a skilled sustainability report interviewer can identify those areas which are relevant from a sustainability standpoint. For example, a Logistics Manager might say that she restructured routing processes to improve delivery efficiency. She is happy to have saved costs while maintaining customer service. When we ask about the environmental impact, she may know the fuel savings which were needed to calculate the cost benefit, but she has probably not thought of the greenhouse gas emissions impact of logistics efficiency improvement. The minute we ask about this, and try to identify environmental metrics for this approach,  advising that  a saving of, say, 1,000 gallons of fuel is equivalent in GHG emission terms to planting and growing over 220 seedlings for ten years, a light-bulb (LED, of course) suddenly illuminates the imagination of the Logistics Manager. The next logistics efficiency project she undertakes will measure both cost and environmental benefit. Suddenly the Logistics Manager has become a Sustainability Manager as well.

Identify More Information Sources 

Sometimes, it takes a while to get to the right person who can provide detailed information. Often, you start with more senior people and have them identify highlights or areas for further investigation. They will generate a list of people to talk to within the organization. In other cases, there may be clues about possible external stakeholders that may be able to make an important contribution to the report. A manager might say, “We led a great project last year. We hired an external consultant to help us.” Or possibly, “We partnered with a trade association or non-profit organization to complete this.” As the credibility of reporting is often enhanced with the inclusion of external stakeholder voices, the interview is a good source of potential additional experts who can provide content to enrich the report.

Increase Sustainability Awareness

A more subtle role of the Sustainability Report Interview is to help increase awareness of sustainability and its business value. In some cases, organizations may not have a declared sustainability strategy, and may not have communicated sustainability widely within the organization. Many managers may be performing sustainably without even realizing it and often do not associate their positive activities with a higher purpose of sustainability. They may even think there is something wrong with claiming to be sustainable when all they really wanted to be was efficient. Often, people might say, apologetically: “We saved energy for cost reasons, not for sustainability reasons.” This is a great opportunity for the interviewer to explain the link between operational efficiency and sustainable business, and reinforce to the interviewee that, whatever it’s called, positive social and environmental impact may be the (additional) result of their actions. This connects interviewees to a higher purpose.

Empower the Sustainability Leader

In many organizations the CSO or Sustainability Leader or CSR Reporting Manager, or whatever she’s called, participates in the interviews. This is a great opportunity for the interviewer to help the Sustainability Leader build understanding, awareness and relationships. Often, the Sustainability Report Interview might be the first time the Sustainability Leader has actually had a conversation with certain managers in the organization. Often, the Sustainability Leader comes away from such conversations having learned something new. This empowers the Sustainability Leader with new information and new contacts which help her drive the sustainability agenda. It also ensures that skills are developed within the organization and not condemned to oblivion in a file of an external consultant.

Reward Commitment and Action

A Sustainability Report Interview is an unofficial way to recognize those who are doing good work in sustainability. Although it is not the role of the external consultant to do this, in practice, reinforcement that a manager’s work is meaningful and even report-worthy is a helpful bonus that the consultant can bring.  The fact that we show an interest, want to know more, ask about challenges, successes and outcomes, and provide the possibility that the manager’s story might get published, are all massive motivating factors. In some cases, people want to tell their story so that it can help others. We give them a stage to do so. This is invaluable in helping create and embed a culture of sustainability.

Support Internal Communications 

You’d be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, especially in large organizations, how some managers don’t know what the organization is doing or even what their colleagues are doing. Many managers don’t read the company sustainability report (evidence of a shortfall in internal communications programs?) and many are surprised to hear for the first time that the company they work for actually does a whole lot more to advance social and environmental benefits than adding zeros to a profit statement. Knowing this engenders pride in the company and pride in themselves. The process of engaging in conversation with a wide range of managers in an organization makes sure they are getting the message. In the course of an interview, you don’t just listen, you share, you update, you tell people why sustainability is important. After a good Sustainability Report Interview, both interviewer and interviewee know more about the organization and its sustainable practices. The process is an effective way to open up communication channels and get more people on the same page.Having established herewith that Sustainability Report Interviews are a fabulous tool, not just for reporting, but to advance sustainability, organization development, communications, engagement and motivation, not all of them are a piece of cake. In conducting interviews, the interviewer needs to be skilled in handling a wide range of reactions to the interview summons.

Let’s discern TEN types:

The Let’s-Get-This-Over-With Type: 

Characterized by: Politically-correct manager, maybe senior, not particularly interested in sharing, has a big team of people who can tell us what we want to know, has a hard stop in 15 minutes.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager, state up front it will only take 15 minutes. Cut to the chase, extract the headlines, and note the additional people s/he recommends talking to first. Then ask the manager where s/he feels the biggest business contribution was from her or his department in the last year. That will earn you at least another ten minutes and provide clues for sustainability activities.

The What-Am-I-Doing-Here Type:

Characterized by: Totally disinterested manager, really doesn’t understand how her or his role is connected to sustainability, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, but was urged to cooperate by The Boss.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager, say it won’t take too much of her/his time. Ask first about business achievements in the past year. Look for sustainability themes in the business achievements, and probe further in those areas. If there’s nothing, let it go and move on.

The Talk-To-Someone-Else Type:

Characterized by: Manager understands and supports the sustainability agenda, but is simply not the right person to talk to. Sustainability projects are more related to the work of other colleagues.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager and ask, anyway, what the manager has achieved in the past year and what benefits this has brought to the company. Then continue as for the What-Am-I-doing-Here-Type above.
 
The New-Kid -On-The-Block Type:

Characterized by: New manager, recently joined, never participated in a Sustainability Report Interview before. Happy to provide data and information but is not familiar with sustainability and doesn’t know if s/he will be able to help.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager and wish her or him good luck in his/her new role. Explain about the Sustainability Reporting process, why it’s important and offer some highlights from the last report. Explain why the new manager’s role is important for sustainability.

The We-Donated-$500-To-Charity Type:

Characterized by: Manager who still believes CSR is about charity, and is very very proud of the $500 donation the department made last month.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager and confirm that a $500 is a fabulous donation. Then ask the manager to tell you what her/his biggest achievements at work have been during the past year.

The Glad-You’re-Interested Type:

Characterized by: Interested manager, but not quite sure how her/his role fits with sustainability, s/he is just doing what s/he knows best in the interests of the business. Very glad that someone is taking an interest.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager. Take an interest in specific projects mentioned. Explain how they are relevant to sustainability. Create the connection between sustainability and the manager’s role.
 
The Ready-and-Waiting Type:

Characterized by: Manager happy to engage, hasn’t prepared anything in particular, but knows the drill and is quite willing to have the conversation and be helpful.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager,  ask about key objectives, goals, targets and achievements in the past year. Ask about what didn’t work so well. Confirm the relevance of this manager’s activities to the sustainability agenda.
 
The I’ve-Done-My-Homework Type:

Characterized by: Prepared manager, been there, done that, knows the drill, knows what you will ask, has done homework and prepared a list of activities and events in anticipation of the call.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager. Lap it up.

The Help-Me-Focus Type

Characterized by: Manager who is excited to share but simply can’t focus on what you are asking. Shares great detail about helping a local sports club build a new clubhouse but fails to address sustainability issues in the core business.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager. Listen to the story. Compliment the manager. Then ask about her or his work activities. See the Ready and Waiting Interview.

The Enjoyed-Our-Talk Type:

Characterized by: Interested manager, does best to explain everything about progress made in sustainability projects and enjoys doing so. Confirms that s/he enjoyed the conversation.
Making the most of it: Thank the manager. Lap it up.If your reporting process does not include Sustainability Report Interviews, something’s amiss. If you are not getting the MOST out of these interviews, you should reevaluate how you they are conducted. If at the end of the interview process, you have not enriched the organization while gaining relevant information (both good news and less good news), you need to think it through. It’s a large investment in time and money, it should work.Some of the most rewarding outcomes of Sustainability Report Interviews for me are when people say:

  • I am glad you are interested in what I do
  • I really enjoyed the conversation
  • I learned something new
  • That’s given me an idea, I am going to follow up.

When there are a lot of these reactions, I know we are going to be able to help deliver a great Sustainability Report!

So, here’s to 2014, the Year of the Sustainability Report Interview!
Happy 2014!

PS: Maybe I should post next about what NOT to ask in a Sustainability Report Interview. I could probably write TWO posts about that. HAHA.


A version of this piece was originally published on the CSR Reporting Blog.

Elaine Cohen is a CSR Consultant and Sustainability Reporter, founder/manager of Beyond Business Ltd and author of the CSR Reporting Blog


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  • Sara

    On a more hostile front, you also have the This Smells Type (the aggressive version of the We-Donated-$500-To-Charity Type): s/he does not believe that having done something sustainable without giving much thought to it counts towards your sustainability record. For example, if s/he reduced the company carbon footprint but in fact the boss was just cost conscious, you should by no means put this down as a sustainability achievement, as no goodwill went with it. S/he will dismiss you as a con artist.