How to Create Change in a Conservative Culture

The debate is over. Evidence abounds that companies can improve their financial bottom line by looking out for the other two-thirds of their triple bottom line. So if sustainability makes so much sense, why isn't everyone doing it?

The hurdle is not the hard facts so much as the soft ones. Companies, like people, have personalities. Some are progressive, but most are conservative. When it comes to sustainability, the progressives get a lot of press, but in reality, they are the exceptions to the rule.

I'm no stranger to working in a conservative culture. Before launching a sustainability consulting practice, I was a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM, working within industries like oil and gas and accounting. As a sustainability consultant, my first clients included law firms, also conservative by nature. Ready to barrel down the green superhighway at top speed, I created green plans that would take them from zero to 60, only to find out they were more content to creep along in the slow lane.

The issue wasn't in figuring out what to do. There are a number of well-documented third-party certification programs that can deliver demonstrable value through cost-savings measures that reduce environmental impact and increase brand awareness. The real challenge in greening a conservative culture lies in bridging the chasm between "progressives" and "conservatives."

The Six Keys to Driving Change in a Conservative Corporate Culture

1. Top-level support.

2. Management-level and administrative support.

3. Minimal risk.

4. A clear path.

5. Bottom-line value.

6. Political awareness.

Read the whole story to find out how these six keys can make all the difference when trying to drive sustainability at work. Conservatives are cautious; progressives throw caution to the wind. Conservatives are grounded in reality; progressives are planted in possibility. Although these are broad generalizations, in today's highly charged political environment, any issue, particularly a heated one like energy, is subject to sweeping generalizations and half-truths.

So how do we chart a course for change within a conservative culture without being labeled as progressive -- and potentially disregarded as a result? That question was on my mind when I met Dan Northcut.

Dan is the Director of Environmental Studies at St. Mark's School of Texas, a private preparatory school for boys founded in Dallas in 1906. Dan has been with the school for over 20 years. In fact, if you count the six years he spent there as a student, you could say he's been there for nearly 30 years.

During that time Dan has seen a lot. He remembers the late seventies when conserving energy was considered patriotic. To do its part, the school removed every other bulb from the light fixtures in its hallways and classrooms. Then came the 1980s. The solar panels were removed from the White House and the zeal for energy conservation in America was on the wane. Nearly two decades of relatively cheap energy followed.

Fast forward to 2008. Conservation has once again become a hot topic in the national discourse, prompting companies to take a fresh look at conservation practices. But while the words "going green" roll of the tongue with ease, rolling out green initiatives that reduce greenhouse gases is not so easy. Many organizations today pay lip service to sustainability while only a few are making genuine investments to make facilities and operations more efficient.

So what sets St. Mark's School of Texas apart? A proactive, comprehensive approach to the 21st century realities of energy insecurity and climate change, driven by broad support from stakeholder groups, a spirit of leadership among its students, and the personal commitment of people like Dan Northcut, who also serves as the school's environmental director.

During the past two years, St. Mark's has implemented a single-stream recycling program and has switched its power source to a blend of 30-percent renewable energy, setting a goal to increase that amount by 10 percent each year. Dan's AP Environmental Science elective course is so popular that the school added a second section. An environmental component is also being integrated into the curriculum of the lower school, giving younger students exposure to sustainability concepts at an early age. Even the teachers' lounge reflects eco-consciousness, now that Styrofoam cups have been replaced with ceramic mugs bearing St. Mark's special green branding.

The most significant reflection of St. Mark's commitment is the Board of Trustees' approval of LEED certification for the two new buildings undergoing construction. This decision added just two percent more to the construction cost. St. Mark's will recover this within approximately 10 years -- less if the cost of energy rises -- with the added benefits of a healthier indoor environment.

The school's eco-improvements, which began two decades ago with Dan, now have the support of teachers, administration, students, parents, and the board. How one person helped drive change at St. Mark's presents a roadmap any change agent can follow in a conservative culture.

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