Book Cover for Green Wisdom on trail through grasses

The following is an excerpt from the recently-released paperback edition of “Green Wisdom: A Guide for Anyone to Start, Engage and Energize a Sustainability Team,” authored by Nikki Pava, with a foreword by Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016) and Founding Partner, Global Optimism.

The book highlights the Green Wisdom shared by the Sustainability Team leaders from some of the most innovative brands—how their teams originated, how they embed their work into the corporate business model, how they re-inspire members when momentum decreases, and the best practices they use to promote team unity. The stories, tools, and frameworks serve as inspiration for leaders to do good, to create valuable and engaging initiatives for employees, and to show the same level of commitment to their company’s social and environmental values as they dedicate to making a profit.

CHAPTER FIVE - From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs

Declaring the Intention of the Team

You can show true courage by stepping up and declaring the need to start a Sustainability Team—especially if your company does not currently emphasize caring for environmental and social issues. Your independent vision and awareness are what is needed to shift the status quo and begin to move toward a more sustainable future.

Effective communication skills, the ability to create relationships, trustworthiness, and commitment are all characteristics that are incredibly important to leading a volunteer-based team. Each of these traits helps enroll other team members into the cause and keep people motivated.

Breakdowns as Interruptions

In Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, Chalmers Brothers describes a “breakdown” as “an unexpected ‘break’ in the normal flow of what I was doing, in the normal routine of my day.”1 Although “Breakdowns may initially seem to be all ‘negative,’” he writes, “they are not positive or negative in and of themselves.”2

More specifically, Brothers recognizes breakdowns as “unexpected interruptions in the fulfilling of a commitment.” If that commitment is to your next sip of coffee, a breakdown may not be very notable; but for many sustainability leaders and teams, the commitments they have made to far-reaching sustainability milestones and goals, not to mention their commitments to stakeholders, customers, and the environment, can make breakdowns seem like true catastrophes.

In the business context, breakdowns affect all departments, even when the most polished processes are in place. Many leaders interviewed for this book experienced different levels of breakdowns within their Sustainability Team as well. Breakdowns occur regardless of the experience, connection to resources, and overall commitment of the group. Even well-funded sustainability teams with a high level of executive support experience times when team members disagree or commit their attention to other parts of the business, interrupting the fulfillment of their public commitments.

For the most part, Sustainability Teams are composed of voluntary groups of people with full-time jobs, complete with daily deadlines and responsibilities. As a result, challenges both big and small will occur as the team navigates its way through communication snafus, decreases in momentum, differing expectations, budget cuts, and even employee turnover.

To be successful in the long run, team leaders need to share and manage expectations, so everyone is clear about their responsibilities. Clearly communicating expectations will foster compassion when a plan changes (especially due to “day job” responsibilities) and create consistency for meetings and events so that people can plan accordingly, and the team can continue to move toward its goals.

There are many ways that Sustainability Team leaders can re-inspire, reignite, and regain trust and momentum when things don’t go as initially planned. Your strong leadership in these times of “interruption” can be the catalyst that turns a breakdown into a positive breakthrough in team communication or processes.

Taking Responsibility for Breakdowns

Breakdowns can also occur when a team creates goals but does not reach them. To combat this, Dr. Bronner’s is intentional about avoiding a culture of blame to facilitate growth and learning within their team.

“We actually didn't improve our waste diversion in the last year, which we learned at the last dumpster dive,” Shiber-Knowles recalls. However, after not reaching their zero waste goal, the team was more energized than ever to analyze their processes further. “We had a great talk about why that was,” she continues, “and then a team member, who is not in management, created a winning solution for our challenge” (the solution is shared in Chapter 9). The breakdown, when handled constructively, inspired a positive solution that will have long-lasting effects on the company.

When beginning the conversation about how to improve their processes in the future, the group made a conscious decision not to focus on what had occurred in the past. “That's not resilience; that's better than resilience,” Shiber-Knowles exclaims. She and her team are dedicated to supporting the company in becoming “anti-fragile, or regenerative” so that it can be even more resilient and continue to be a leader in its industry. This core intention protects the team and all its members in the event of a breakdown. Similar to the Market Force approach, the team’s shared mission encourages members not to dwell on failure and to view setbacks as learning lessons for the future.

Reigniting Momentum with a Clear Plan

Maintaining a clear mission (as described in Chapter 2) maximizes your team’s effectiveness. Momentum decreases when it is unclear what the team—or even the company—is working towards.

For Rebecca Hamilton and Badger Balm, one of the most important parts of building a capable team and presenting a clear mission was clarifying individual roles:

“From a leadership team perspective, the biggest struggle was at the beginning when we were trying to figure out what the purpose of the Sustainability Team would be and how it interacts with people's day-to-day role in their department.  For example, at Badger, it is not the role of someone on the Sustainability Team to research fair trade sources of ingredients for their products, as it is the responsibility of an individual who specializes in this area (usually Operations or Product Development) to find sustainable sourcing options. However, members of the Sustainability Team are responsible for educating and inspiring everyone in the company about sustainable sourcing through engagement campaigns and events.”

Everyone on the team is a valuable contributor because everyone has different (clear!) roles. With Baum and Hamilton’s oversight (in addition to Katie Schwerin, Badger’s COO, Co-Founder & Co-Owner), the Sustainability Team at Badger formed subcommittees and completed the easier action items first. The additional fine-tuning allowed team members to make a meaningful impact while still balancing their workloads. “It’s a really powerful team that can do a lot and has been really inspiring to the rest of the company,” Hamilton adds.

Building Resilience for the Future

Breakdowns can occur on account of faulty logistics, poor communication, or when the responsibilities of team members’ paid positions make it impossible to focus on other areas of interest. As a leader, you must stay focused on the Sustainability Team’s mission and intention. Learning how to avoid breakdowns, as well as how to move through them and prevent similar setbacks in the future, is crucial to the team’s long-term success. Using the skills necessary to overcome challenges and learn from even the smallest setbacks can make a positive impact on Sustainability Team operations, enabling team members to work more effectively and support the company in reaching its goals.

When a Sustainability Team can move through challenging situations, find solutions, and continue striving toward a shared goal, it becomes a resilient and invaluable asset to the company. “Most people say that breakdowns are the best thing that ever happened to them because it got their team thinking in a different direction and opened their minds,” says Cooper. “People will share stories with examples that describe how a breakdown resulted in saving a ton of money, time, or other resources. So, breakdowns always end up offering some wisdom and value.”


Purchase your copy of Green Wisdom here.

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About The Author

Nikki Pava's picture

Nikki Pava is the author of Green Wisdom: A Guide for Anyone to Start, Engage and Energize a Sustainability Team. She is also the founder of Alegria Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in sustainability engagement initiatives for mission-driven companies.

Prior to her work at Alegria Partners, Nikki founded EcoTuesday, a national networking forum that facilitated vital connections and essential change in the business community. EcoTuesday hosted more than 300 events in 12 cities across the country and brought together hundreds of sustainability professionals, making a positive impact in each city.

Nikki holds an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She lives in an eco-community in Costa Rica and is currently writing a book about teams in businesses that focus on reaching their company’s climate change goals.

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