Vision Alignment: Seeing Eye to Eye with Business Management

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

In several columns over the past year, I have stressed the importance of gaining closure with management, with their true objectives and goals. They may say they support “environmental excellence,” but then act like they want basic compliance at minimum cost. Others may be frustrated that greater progress isn’t forthcoming. Such disconnects can be a tremendous source of confusion and frustration among EH&S professionals. This month’s EH&S Advisor takes a closer look at the issue and offers suggestions on gaining closure with management. The advice is primarily directed at mid-size to large corporations, where access to upper management is at a premium. The underlying principles hold true, however, for small companies and individual manufacturing sites.

EH&S professionals rarely work directly for the CEO. Indeed, interactions with executive managers are usually infrequent, highly structured, and narrowly focused (see Table 1). For example, at one time in my career I reported to a technology department manager who always made the pitch to the chief executive of the business group when there was good news to report. Guess who talked about the spills and fines?

The very nature of interactions with executives creates a “green wall” between EH&S professionals and business executives. 1 For the EH&S professional, this separation is particularly difficult to overcome. Executive staffs and CEOs rarely have backgrounds in EH&S management. Conversely, EH&S managers generally do not have business experience with profit and loss responsibilities. Senior managers’ concepts of EH&S are most often expressed in general terms, such as the importance of managing external EH&S perceptions of the organization, regulatory compliance assurance, and employee morale.

An open, two-way dialogue is needed to both educate and inform one another of the elements critical to a broader understanding of how EH&S adds value. This two-way exchange is essential. In the EH&S business, as with any area involving ethics, “just following orders” is an unacceptable justification for carrying out fundamentally flawed instructions. It is our responsibility to ensure that informed and candid directions are coming from the top.

There are other obstacles to establishing open, two-way communications. Many senior managers have learned the hard way that EH&S issues can be sensitive public relations issues. Sometimes politically correct rhetoric can cloud what
began as clear and explicit corporate direction. Sorting out the rhetoric from the true business objectives is absolutely essential. For example, many companies have talked about their vision for sustainable development. In 1993, Ontario Hydro began a far-reaching program to incorporate this principle, called sustainable energy development (SED), as a core business objective. This was a program largely driven from above, and specifically by Maurice Strong, the CEO. This ambitious program began to falter and by 1997 the commitment to sustainable development was abandoned.

A recent journal article describes the rise and fall of the program, stating, “[A] variety of hidden beliefs abut SED continuously operated within Hydro and were never aired or resolved. This ambiguity and lack of vision, together with an absence of process, contributed to a vacuum within which SED practice came to be regarded as a sub-strategic component of the corporation’s new ‘competitiveness’ orientation.”2

Programs fail when there are conflicts or misunderstandings over goals and objectives. If the key players are on different wavelengths, communications suffer. In the above example, both the EH&S department and the CEO were tuned into one another, but the middle managers, who ultimately were to determine success or failure, were not. To challenge orders and raise questions is always hard when the directives are coming from the CEO. But if the directives involve sensitive subjects such as EH&S, it can be extremely difficult to find out where the CEO may stand on the issues. A common vision is necessary as the most basic step for program support (see Figure 1).

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