Embedding sustainability at a strategic level

Our ultimate goal as sustainability leaders is to see sustainability embedded in the vision, mission and values of our organisations. Only then can universities and colleges realise the full potential of sustainability as a means of delivering long-term institutional success.

To achieve this, successive business cases need to be made to secure resources for new and institution-wide initiatives, alongside on-going effort to influence the attitudes of senior leaders. This is not a straightforward task. It is a complex, unpredictable process that takes a long time.

Lots of resources are available to help you understand what change management is and how to apply it in a FHE context (see section 8 – Further resources).

This section introduces some key factors for you to think about when starting out, which should be supplemented by further reading and reflection in the context of your own organisation:

Understand peoples’ drivers and start from there

Sustainability leaders tend to be passionate advocates for sustainability but not everyone is starting from the same point and so this can sometimes be a barrier to changing hearts and minds.

When trying to persuade others of the importance of taking action on sustainability, therefore, it is vital that you focus on the things that matter to individuals and the institution. It is also worth bearing in mind that people experience different pressures depending on where they sit in an organisation.

The descriptors in the table below help illustrate the type of professional drivers that tend to influence middle and senior managers (depending on the nature of your role, you may recognise some of the drivers listed as being relevant to you).

Typical Senior Manager Typical Middle Manager
More aware than most of
the strategic picture
Aware of operational realities more than
senior managers and of strategic picture
more than staff
Has access to
organisational information
and resources
Often seen as the key person connecting
strategy and operations, and the key to
Reacts badly to misaligned
requests due to multiple
competing agendas
May think the organisation lacks focus/
prioritisation beyond their immediate
Dependent on briefings/
limited capacity for new
Suffers from multiple agendas imposed
from above and under pressure to deliver
with fewer resources
Significantly time pressured Will have own priorities as well as those
of the line manager and other senior
Thought of as having
power, but often struggle
to influence or control a
blizzard of events
Often trusted by staff and highly
influential when change communication
is received and passed on

Understand peoples’ drivers and start
from there (continued)

People’s broader values, attitudes and beliefs are also relevant because they shape what they think and how they behave at work.

Taking time to understand these drivers will help you frame your idea in the context
of their priorities and ideals.

Look outside as well as in

Working to understand the context in which your organisation is operating will help you appreciate how external drivers and barriers are likely to influence your plans for change.

For example, some institutions work closely with city or regional bodies. Linking your aspirations around sustainability to broader city/region ambitions may add weight and help secure buy-in from senior leaders.

Create a sense of urgency

Change doesn’t happen without buy-in from affected stakeholders. Creating a sense of urgency will help you secure cooperation by emphasising the importance of acting now rather than delaying action and risk missing out on opportunities or seeing risks escalate.

In doing so, it is important that you identify and try to remove any obstacles to change, whilst also being careful to avoid creating a sense of panic or lack of control that can occur when stressing urgency.

Be solution-orientated

Sustainability presents many challenges for universities and colleges – as for wider society – but it also offers many solutions.

By presenting solutions and opportunities, senior leaders are more likely to listen to your ideas in the context of the many challenges they are required to manage.

Build consensus on common issues

It is necessary to build a coalition of support for your ideas among senior leaders to drive through the change you want to see happen. Very often, people want the same outcomes (e.g. improved quality of teaching, a nicer working environment, higher student retention, etc.) but they are coming at it from different perspectives.

Sustainability is more likely to gain traction if you can align it with the priorities of senior leaders and show how it offers a solution to common issues.

Find a senior champion

Peer-to-peer influence can be a powerful way of promoting your idea. When engaging senior colleagues, look for someone influential who ‘gets it’ and is willing to sell the idea on your behalf. This could be an academic champion, a mentor or even a prominent external stakeholder.

Once you find a champion they may also be able to help you navigate the system, identify and target key individuals, and access resources to help progress your idea.

Let leaders see things for themselves

Senior leaders are faced with many competing priorities and are under pressure to make the right decisions with limited resources. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd in this environment.

One way of achieving this is to show senior leaders the issue you want to address – whether it be a new piece of technology or a social issue of concern - letting them see the challenges for themselves can be a powerful way of explaining the importance of sustainability.

Leave time for ideas to sink in

Time is required to allow new ideas to establish in the minds of senior leaders. Make sure this is factored into your plans for making change happen to prevent delays and disappointment further down the track: Be prepared for this to take many months or even years depending on the nature and significance of your proposals.

Celebrate success

Build momentum for sustainability by developing positive news stories about early successes and linking them to big issues affecting the institution. This will help demonstrate the impact of sustainability and reinforce messages about its relevance to current agendas.

When opportunities to celebrate success arise, don’t worry about who gets the credit as long as the story helps you get to where you want to be.

Be pragmatic

Embedding sustainability at a strategic level in your organisation is a marathon not a sprint. Develop stretching but realisable goals and know when to let go of ideas if they are firmly rejected.

Develop the right knowledge and skills

Managing change is a complex process. You should spend time better understanding how change occurs in organisations and developing the skills you need to manage it.

Consider finding a mentor or job-shadowing opportunity to help you achieve this. Peer-to-peer learning and support is also a valuable resource.

Be resilient

Personal resilience is a particularly important attribute for managing change. Things take time and there will be set-backs so developing coping strategies is important for seeing change through.

You should expect resistance to your ideas and be prepared to tackle it (though the majority of your time should be spent engaging people who are neutral or broadly supportive to avoid getting too bogged down with
those who are strongly resistant).

Some resistant colleagues will actively reject your ideas and publicly voice negative opinions while others may feel negative but not make their views known (the latter being a smaller proportion but more difficult to detect). You should try to identify who is resistant and think carefully about how to respond to them. There is no hard and fast rule because responses should be context specific.

The SCARF (Status-Certainty-Autonomy-Relatedness-Fairness) developed by Rock (2008) is a useful model for determining why people resist new ideas and for developing interventions that tackle drivers of resistance.

When you do experience knock-backs, pause, listen to the reasons why, adapt your approach accordingly, and focus on the long-term goal to drive change on sustainability across the organisation.