What Engages You About Sustainability?

Employee engagement is the ultimate buzzword these days. It gave me great pleasure to sit in on the last talk of the day at the State of Green Business Forum, given by Catherine Greener, Principal of Clear Green Advisers.  She was there to talk about how to engage employees around sustainability. Many people in the room were there to hear what works at the Fortune 500 level in employee engagement. Greener’s background includes working as VP at Saatchi & Saatchi S, one of the pioneers in this field, and both my and Greener’s former employer. I was personally curious to see how her new company had or had not incorporated lessons from Saatchi’s employee engagement program with 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees.

Greener started the talk by asking what engaged us. Answers in the room ranged from soccer to sex to drama to humor to seeing green be profitable. Greener followed with a summary of employee surveys that show what employees typically say would help engage them in their job:

  • Being valued
  • challenging and meaningful work
  • clear vision
  • learning
  • recognition
  • participation in decision making
  • trust and collaboration

all came up in the surveys.

What does a manager do when they have all these items and then they have to also layer on sustainability? And how do we make that connection between what we said, what the employees say, and how to connect those dots to the things that really matter to the company: getting people engaged, loving their jobs, being productive, not quitting….Greener suggested many employees are now coming to their managers because their children are coming to them and saying, “Dad, really? What are you doing to us?”  It’s a common connection that when people start to worry about the health of their children, they start to see the connections to the world around them and the legacy they’re leaving to the next generation.

So the idea is to make the connections to where people are. Can a manager ask someone they manage the 5 things they care about most in their life? Greener asked us to do this as an exercise, and it was more difficult than you might imagine.

The next step is to ask how people got into their sustainability mission. Write the story out. What was the “ah ha!” moment? These stories are highly engaging. Try this as an exercise: ask the next person you meet at Green Drinks or at some other sustainability event what was their “ah ha” moment. I’ll bet you it’s going to be one of the things you hear that day that you’ll still remember a week or more later.

So what are those touchpoints?

One participant said his “ah ha” moment was realizing that the better he did his job, the faster he was killing his kid. His story was, as an ad executive, he was charged with marketing 5 new “flavors” of chemical floor cleaners. He had just had a child, and had to ask himself, “does the world really need 5 more flavors of chemical floor cleaners?” It’s a death knell for an advertising person–how do you ever go back to your job pushing products?

How engaging are these concepts: Solid waste? Climate change? Energy?

But how engaging are these concepts: a girl who saw first-hand the Pacific gyre full of plastic waste? Someone who watched their favorite fishing area become one of those wetlands that gets ‘relocated’ (that is actually my “ah ha” moment)?

So how does a manager use this? Take those stories…a Pacific gyre of plastic is a solid waste issue at its core. Connect that story by interpreting the touchpoints, and then connect it to that employee’s work somehow.


Want to enter the green economy? Come to a free, interactive webinar with Carol McClelland, author of Green Careers for Dummies (Wiley) and Scott Cooney, author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill) and Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

2 responses

  1. Solid waste? Climate change? Energy?

    Honestly, over the short term, these terms might “engage” people, but I do not think they are enough to catalyze people to move.

    In China, where environmental issues (clearly) spillover into areas of health and the economy, it is actually much easier to engage membrs of the community on those terms (versus dragging out pictures of a polar bear). It is not that the polar bear won’t cause concern, or that you cannot get people to sign an online petition, but that image is rarely going to lead towards a real change in habits, a sustained call for action, or result in larger bodies taking steps forward.

    Engagement needs to begin with the tangible, and terms aren’t tangible.


  2. Thank you for this post, Scott. It is one thing for a business to “go sustainable”, but it is entirely something else to inspire sustainability among employees. I think your point about connecting the dots from relatable human stories to sustainable business practices is spot on. Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about “story telling” as a powerful way for those who have been successful in identifying sustainable opportunities to inspire others to do the same. I think that 2011 would be a great year for business to begin finding ways to share these stories with their employees and beyond.

    Debbra A. K. Johnson
    Global Marketing Manager
    DuPont Sustainable Solutions

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