Trewin Restorick on why sustainability should be an important business issue to middle managers
Persuading the Squeezed Middle
This blog entry was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business hub.
Making the business case for sustainability
What messages can be used to convince hard-pressed and sometimes skeptical middle managers that sustainability is an important business issue? Global Action Plan has asked this question of corporate social responsibility managers and has received a wide range of often conflicting opinions.
Last autumn, Al Gore gave Global Action Plan access to his huge slideshow depicting extreme weather events around the world. We decided to use these slides as the basis of a new presentation designed to make the business case to hard-pressed middle managers. We called it "Sustainability Luxury or Necessity?"
The Squeezed Middle
We knew we had set ourselves a difficult task. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development summed up the scale of the challenge. It found that almost half of middle managers are under excessive work pressure. They are particularly unhappy with their work-life balance and are worried about job security.
The head of public policy at CIPD said of the findings: "Middle managers are often caught between delivering strategic objectives and managing under-pressure line-managers". It is little wonder that getting sustainability message over to them is so difficult.
Given the scale of the challenge we decided to ask CSR Managers from a wide-range of companies to be "critical friends" and provide us with their thoughts on the presentation. Their comments and ideas encapsulate many of the challenges businesses face in making the sustainability message relevant and compelling. The following summarises some of the recurring themes.
Stop beating me over the head
The Al Gore narrative aimed to demonstrate that climate change is linked to a growing number of extreme weather events. Countless slides support this argument showing the impact of floods, droughts and storms around the world. We drastically reduced the number of slides but kept enough to show the overall global trend.
The response we got back from the majority of CSR managers was that we still had too many. They argued that their managers would rapidly get bored with this range of images and that we should drastically scale-back this part of the presentation.
We agreed with their views and have changed the presentation accordingly. However, it is interesting that the central theme of the original approach doesn’t seem to provoke the shock and desire to act that he was hoping – instead it seems to switch people off making them feel overwhelmed.
Remove the Emotion
The presentation includes a short video clip from Brazil showing a woman and her dog being pulled by rope from their house as it is destroyed around them. The woman is dragged into the water and is forced to let go of the dog in order to survive herself. We included it to try to show the human impact of flooding.
Once again the reaction from the majority of our critical friends was that this should be removed. They felt that it came across as a cheap emotional stunt that would not play well with their managers.
We found this reaction more surprising as we believed that you have to show the human and social impact of extreme weather and thought that the video did this succinctly. Interestingly the impact of the Cumbrian floods on the welfare of communities in those areas resonated much more strongly as people could relate to it more directly. We have kept the local example and removed the video.
Can you be provocative?
The presentation aims to show the business drivers for acting more sustainability. We use the brilliant Ken dumps Barbie! video created by Greenpeace which exposed Mattel’s use of unsustainable packaging to highlight the reputation risk that can be hidden in supply chains.
This provoked a mixed reaction. Most of the CSR managers liked the humorous approach. However, a number thought that it would be poorly received by their managers and would immediately result in the presentation being lumped together with the views of anti-business green lobby groups. This is not something we share and have kept the video in the presentation.
It's all about money, stupid
The element of the presentation that was most positively received was when we moved onto solutions. All the CSR Managers universally liked the Puma Clever Little Bag video we use in the presentation and asked us to find more content like this showing the financial benefits of sustainability in action. In particular, they wanted solid examples from companies that were "not the usual suspects".
While we are totally supportive of this view, finding short compelling stories and videos that make the business case for sustainability is a struggle suggesting more needs to be done in this area.
The development of the presentation has provided a fascinating insight into how difficult it is to make the sustainability message compelling to managers who face many other immediate pressures. What is certain is that many are craving help with this task and we hope that our finalized presentation will be of value.