Find Out Who Really Runs the Show - If you don’t get their Buy-in, your Projects will go Nowhere

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Pick up any book on strategic environmental management, and it will wax eloquently on the technical and financial merits of various programs. There seems to be an underlying assumption that if the program is rock solid and business management has bought into it, the new effort will be embraced down through the organization. Not necessarily, especially if Billy Mack, the second shift leader, thinks it’s a bunch of horse manure. Within every organization there are the “wise ones,” those individuals who have enormous power and influence over what is accepted and what gets trashed. These individuals can be at any level in the organization. Even some of the lowest on the organizational chart command the ear of the CEO. You need to find out who these individuals are in your organization and win them over if you expect to be successful in rolling out new programs.

Twenty years ago, I was on a chartered flight with the vice president of General Electric’s Noryl business unit. He explained that the company had instituted a policy stating that no more than six executives of a business unit could fly on the same flight after an air disaster had wiped out the top management layer of one of the business groups. He was quite amused by all this “nonsense” and declared, “If my staff and I disappeared tomorrow, the business would not skip a beat, but if [he named six frontline individuals] were to die tomorrow, it would be a total disaster for the Noryl business.” I knew exactly what he was getting at. These were the individuals that really ran the show. They had the respect of everyone, incredible institutional knowledge, and even the ear of the soon-to-be CEO, Jack Welch. It may be the “little people” who pay taxes, as Leona Hemsley once said, but these people often command more power than people higher up the organizational ladder. Corporate managers who have never “been in the trenches” sometimes lose sight of this fact. A personal favorite of mine is the Harvard Business School case study, Dashman Company, the story of a newly appointed vice president of purchasing who began issuing perfectly rational new corporate procedures.1 He sought out and received board of director approval to issue the instruction for a new system. He was too busy (or was it too important?) to meet individually with the site purchasing managers, but each pledged full cooperation. Several months later, however, he realized that the sites were ignoring the new program. “How could they?!” he shouted. My coauthor, Robert Kenney, learnt this valuable lesson very early in his career as a process designer. He takes pride in incorporating cutting-edge technology into designs, and in his early days, assumed that the operations people would be
similarly inspired to work with such fantastic technology. He soon learned, however, that no design could work effectively if the “real experts”—the individuals running the daily operations— did not buy into the concept. “From their perspective, I failed to make their boss understand what they needed. Thus, they concluded I did not listen to them and did not know anything about their business,” Kenney says. Buy-in from the people who really run the show is the linchpin for successful business implementation. This is especially true when implementing an environmental management system (EMS). Historically, the association between regulatory compliance and business cost savings has been disconnected. Similarly, there has been no direct connection between business risk and EH&S compliance risk. Therefore, business managers may have a difficult time seeing the value of a systematic approach to managing EH&S for the entire process. Because of the variety of possible outcomes, the type of EMS implemented can range from formal, certifiable ISO 14001 systems to “we-have-always-done-it-this-way” systems. The tools to develop and implement these systems can also range from behavioral safety processes to Six Sigma methods. Notwithstanding the variety, one element is common to all successful EMS systems: obtaining the support of the people that will be doing the work on a daily basis is critical. To encourage buy-in from key individuals, EH&S representatives should first recognize who these people are, what they do, and why they do it. By guiding these key individuals through the process as the desired outcomes or goals are being defined, ensures that the new EMS procedures are both understood and accepted.

About the author/s

Richard MacLean

Richard MacLean is president of Competitive Environment, a management consulting firm in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the executive director of the Center for Environmental Innovation, a university-based nonprofit research organization.

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