Putting the Management Back in Change, Part 4: Communication Effectiveness

In my first article in this series,”Putting the Management Back in Change”, I began looking at what it really takes for companies to successfully institutionalize sustainability and truly be “green firms”. Too frequently, I encounter firms who have not realized that becoming a truly green firm means more than having LEED projects in your portfolio.  It requires intentional change efforts that tie to culture, management and methodology. Firms who have signed on to the 2030 Commitment are forced to confront this challenge head on, seeking ways to make every team a green team and every project some shade of green.

kotter 2In this series, I use Harvard business guru John Kotter’s 8 step model for organizational change as a framework to focus on sustainability. Previously, I introduced the need to create a sense of urgency (part 1), build guiding coalitions to create buy-in (part2) and create a vision (part 3). In this article, I’ll focus on the importance of designing effective communications strategies to move from vision to success.

Many firms have created sustainability vision or mission statements, which are prominently displayed on websites or in marketing material. However, if you asked staff what the vision is — as we did in our 2011 industry survey, reported in Mirror, Mirror Part 1 and Part 2 — there are two common reactions: a blank look or a smirk. Either they are unaware of the statements, or the published vision is unrelated to anything that goes on in the firm. If real effort has been spent on a commitment and establishing a vision for the company, the worst thing that can happen is to have it die on the vine. Kotter refers to this failure as “under-communicating the vision by a factor of ten.”

I’ve witnessed three different mistakes that Kotter identifies as typical behavior: First, too often the vision is developed, there is one big meeting or one e-blast to communicate it, and that is considered “it”. In the second scenario, leadership spends a lot of time making speeches to different employee groups, but nothing is tangible in day-to-day activities. The third approach relies on newsletters, internet and speeches, but the behavior of leaders contradicts the message, so cynicism prevails. With the current deluge of emails, no one really pays attention to that kind of messaging. In this case, quality is more important than quantity – effective communication is what matters.

Communication is broader than what you say and how you say it; it’s also more subtle. It is about how people develop a perception that something is important. The communication of a priority can happen as a result of engaging in specific activities, without conversation. It can exist by having an expectation of accountability, like instituting the use of project roadmaps or workplans to plot out the team’s critical-path decision processes related to energy performance. That isn’t a discussion about green building, but an action that demonstrates the importance of focusing on energy performance and a collaborative process.

In developing your communications strategy, think of the three key factors: who, how and when.

Who: It’s critical for executive leadership to be visible and vocal about the company commitment to sustainability but that’s not enough. In large companies, there needs to be layers of leadership communicating the same message. Depending on the flow of authority and management reporting within your organization, you need to identify the key levels of leadership people currently look to for direction or approval. Middle managers, division managers, regional managers – this will vary. The important point is that the message is “pulsed” out from different departments within the company and at different levels. Empowering this variety of people to be part of the effort is also important because it gains their buy-in. Ideally, these are the same people who are also responsible for tracking progress. They are not just tasked with sending out a message, but with following up and holding others accountable. It’s also very valuable to create vehicles for ‘bottom-up’ communication so that junior staff or support services can share their excitement, interest, victories and challenges and communication isn’t uni-directional.

How: Of course there will be email, memos and posters, but despite our use of technology, nothing is more effective than face-to-face communications, so a mix is critical. Look for existing, standing meetings such as quarterly reviews, annual meetings, monthly staff check-ins, annual performance reviews, project debriefs – places where people already pay attention. It’s invaluable to incorporate your sustainability efforts into routine discussions about core business issues, and to use every vehicle appropriately. Figure out what aspects of your sustainability program are appropriate to be highlighted and develop a plan to integrate them. If it’s a focus on projects and biz dev, be able to identify which of the current projects are pursuing green design strategies or 3rd party certifications. If it’s a weekly staff meeting, share highlights of green office efforts, newly achieved LEED certifications or other related info. Even better, share stats on metrics that are being tracked over the year. Progress on the 2030 commitment is one good example, but choose the ones that apply to you and your goals.

Another critical approach is to personalize your commitment. Make sure it’s clear to every single person in the organization how their daily job relates to sustainability efforts. If they are technical, they need to be clear on strategies, technology and process. If they are administrative, they need to know about green office and operational priorities. The biggest failures result from people not understanding their specific connection to the goal.

When: Aside from special announcements from leadership, identify times for critical path items when people are engaged and relevant information can be shared. For projects, that might mean institutionalizing a question or checklist of questions at every project kick off. For professional development, past and future training could be discussed at every performance review. For management, sustainability should be incorporated into the KPI’s (key performance indicators) reviewed at regular meetings. For clients and partners, your story and accomplishments can be shared at your holiday party. Daily activities such as using Sharepoint or intranet can also include pop-ups or other means to continually remind people of particular resources or new information.

It is very useful to take an hour and do a map or diagram of existing pathways of activity such as operations, management, project delivery and communications conduits. For each of those main pathways look at who is involved and where the opportunities are to integrate sustainability in dialogue, tracking or actions. Discuss what the barriers might be so you can proactively deal with them. For example, you might look at purchasing and decide to integrate messaging about environmentally preferable products in the purchasing process. A barrier might be not knowing what criteria to use and which products to flag – so you need to figure that out first. In management, you might decide to incorporate a question about sustainability into performance review forms. It may take some effort and time internally to get that approved. If you take a bird’s-eye view at these pathways, you will be able to find different ways of communicating that sustainability is a priority, whether overtly or through subtler means. At the end of the day, if there is a visible and tangible perception by staff that it is important, your chances of success will be tenfold!

Remember, actions speak louder than words and behavior is paramount. If people’s behavior contradicts their spoken platitudes, the efforts will fail. Leaders at all levels need to demonstrate that sustainability is important – through the decisions that they make on a daily basis related to projects, staffing, investments or operations.

The next challenge is empowering others to act on the vision and participate in all the actions that are being laid out. This doesn’t happen naturally but can be done if you are thoughtful about how actions are implemented. This will be the focus of the next article.


Some examples of behavior that can subvert a sustainability agenda:

  • HR doesn’t support professional development (time or money) related to sustainability; performance reviews and promotion paths don’t factor it in
  • Some partners visibly don’t support the program – either in their operations/behavior OR in their attitudes to collaboration (“over my dead body will I let an engineer in the process before X”
  • Project executives don’t allow subordinates to spend time researching specific green strategies, don’t promote those strategies to clients, don’t support Life Cycle Costing
  • Office operations are not green at all; what people see every day doesn’t match the message