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Flying sustainability to the moon through employee engagement

If (like me) you have been working in any field associated with change management, employee engagement or sustainability, you’ve probably heard the JFK and janitor story before.

But if you’ve been hiding under a rock for a while, here’s how it goes: in 1962, on a visit to NASA, JFK introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did there. The janitor replied “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

This is the degree of personal commitment many of our corporate clients would like to see from their employees. And in particular when it comes to embedding their sustainability strategy in the heart of the business.

Why is it so difficult? One of the reasons is that corporate sustainability objectives can be seen as lofty: universal, social or environmental causes that simply feel overwhelming to employees. They’re often in stark contrast with the mundane reality of their every day jobs and sales objectives.

One of the most common questions we get asked is “how can I engage on sustainability along the value chain, not just within the organisation but with our partners, distributors and customers?”

Big firms expect every employee to latch onto their corporate objective and discuss sustainability. But many of those super sharp employees, hired for their strategic thinking or leading-edge technical skills are the least naturally prone to engaging, persuading and influencing others.

I recently led a training course for employees who were subsequently expected to train farmers across Asia – often poorly educated or illiterate smallholders – on the safe use of pesticides. Many of them could recite the ‘5 golden rules’ that are the foundation of the training and had already conducted training on the ground. But surprisingly few knew how the training related to one of their company’s key sustainability commitments or how effective their training had been.

So our training focused on some obvious pointers:

  1. Get to know your audience – who are the people you want to engage? What could prevent them from listening or adopting your advice? What could trigger them into adopting new habits? What could motivate them in the long-term to put their protective equipment on when they spray pesticides, even in scorching heat?
  2. Tailor your message – once you have a better understanding of your audience and their emotional needs, you can use the messages that will resonate with them. If a farmer is working hard to send his daughter to school, explain that a safe use of pesticides will guarantee a better yield, a higher income, and the possibility to buy her school books.
  3. Help them stick with it – no revolutionary behavioural change can be expected overnight. Once you deliver the training, leave items behind you to remind farmers to spray safely – caps, posters, calendars, pens.

Many of these ideas may seem prosaic, especially to the communications expert. But let’s not forget that corporations are traditionally not good at communicating in a simple and compelling way. And when it comes to sustainability, it’s akin to asking them to learn a new language.

So let’s aim to get the basics right if we are to fly sustainability to the moon.