People often ask us what’s most important for successfully implementing a sustainability strategy. The answer is: It All Comes Down to People – and there are two kinds of people.

It may be obvious that it takes people to implement a strategy. For some initiatives, specific skills are needed, but with a values-focused strategy, it’s not just one particular group of people. It’s really two: senior managers (including the CEO) and everybody else. With such a broad range of issues, it takes active engagement and support by the whole organization to realize your goals. Support from senior management – and we mean vocal and frequent support – focuses the organization on taking the initiative seriously. A high priority initiative with this kind of management support attracts employees to get involved and participate.

We are not saying that you don’t need strong support from certain individuals or groups within your organization, just that you need more. For example, you may need expert input from your facilities manager, your human resources folks, or you corporate trainer in order to frame your initiative, but everyone in the organization uses electricity, contributes to whether a workplace is free of harassment, and is part of the fabric that makes a company an upstanding corporate citizen. You might not need the entire workforce to pick some of the low hanging fruit served up by conservation and waste elimination efforts, but you do need everyone to be involved in strategies that depend on behavioral changes or require thinking about new and innovative ways to create new environmentally-focused products or services.

Here are 4 key things to consider when you are trying to drive company-wide, management and employee engagement:

  1. Get noticed. Getting the engagement you need in a sea of competition for the scant hours in a business day may require a carrot or a stick. Incorporating more environmentally-conscious measures into to performance-based evaluations can give your initiative a big boost. You can do this for a particular goal on which everyone can engage (an energy target, for example) or for the overall initiative, with each group having metrics most aligned with their area of work. Having the CEO set the example – and issue regular reminders – for expected behaviors can also make a big difference and have a trickle down affect, as you work to achieve significant cultural changes that such initiatives often require.

  2. Make it fun. We aren’t talking about no work and all play. People have fun in a variety of ways. The key is to offer a variety of ways in which your workforce can feel rewarded in pushing toward the same overarching goal of becoming a more sustainable organization. Working on a tough challenge (e.g., make this product more environmentally and socially friendly without reducing profits) can be as much, if not more, fun than a company tree planting event. Sometimes a field trip to a recycling plant is the inspiration needed for a core group of workers to spearhead a new social norm within the company about recycling. Mandatory training programs that incorporate a social element can create new workplace bonds and cross-pollinate ideas for innovation. 

  3. Make it a conversation. A company is made up of people! Talk with them about your new or improving initiatives. Help workers understand why the company is doing what it’s doing. Help them see how they can contribute. Find out what’s important to them. What part of the activities are the most meaningful? Good managers engage employees and reduce turnover by talking regularly with employees to make sure they understand their roles and feel fulfilled. More often than not, involvement in a green initiative or a green team can provide meaning for workers with even the most routine or repetitive jobs. If your managers engage in these types of conversations, they will know whom to engage and how, and the benefits will be greater than just having a successful program.

  4. Recognize the movers and shakers. All of them. Celebrating success is an important part of keeping people engaged. And we mean showing genuine appreciation by recognizing important milestones with something your high achievers really want. It doesn’t have to be monetary or huge; it just has to be meaningful – like an afternoon off, some flex time for an important personal event, or access to the CEO over a meal. Publicly ring the bell. And if you don’t know what’s important to your employees, you missed the last paragraph!

Sustainability is about building your organization’s capacity to endure, and no matter which way you slice it, it all comes down to people. Click here for to see Sustrana's white paper on using sustainability initiatives to spur employee engagement!