Part 4: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

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Part 4: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional

This is the fourth of 6 articles in a series… an answer to questions I kept receiving from friends, “Adam, what do you actually do everyday as a sustainability professional?”  The first post covered sustainability strategy.  The second  covered planning.  The third covered training.  This one covers project management.  And the remaining articles cover implementation and marketing.


Part 3: Project Management…
The Process Matters

I have the highest respect for certified project managers — because I am not one.

We do have a Quality Process Improvement (QPI) department (which is rare for a family-owned, private company)… and one of our consultants — and fellow outdoor enthusiast in Des Moines — Timothy Johnson, shared a fabulous little book he authored  early in my career.

It was called, A Race Through the Forest, and I highly recommend it if you don’t plan on getting certified.  Maybe even if you do, as a primer.

race through the forest

Secret #1 — Everyone will give you advice, but the fastest way to learn is to first ask those who have already done what you want to do.

Managing my time is most important… and… helping others manage their time is a close second.

Here are the 8 lessons that I have learned — through the school of hard-knocks:

  1. Get your team early
  2. Meet in person
  3. Be able to summarize the whole project on one page
  4.  Always have an agenda
  5. Prepare before the meeting
  6. Follow-up after the meeting
  7. Ask for weekly updates
  8. Don’t take on too much at once!

I’ll try to show examples that make it clear — it’s simple… but not always easy.

Confirm The Resources You Need…
Early and In Person

I had a training video I wanted released.  I sent an email to HR, and had one meeting with one person.

I asked what they needed from me to release it to our associates.  They gave me a short list  which I completed in a few weeks — but I was told that we needed to wait 6 months for our new e-learning platform to go live.

During that time, I sent regular emails to HR make sure we were still on target for release.

When Earth Month rolled around, and it was time to release… HR surprised me with the following questions?

  • Which associates will this training be for?
  • Is it required of them?
  • If so, what does Operations say about the labor cost?
  • Have our division vice presidents approved that expense?

After sitting on this for 7 months, you might imagine my emotional reaction.

But… it was my project.  It was my responsibility to ask the right questions — even if I didn’t know what the right questions were.

personal responsibility

For my project to be successful, I needed to secure the resources required for success BEFORE we began implementing.  Not just rely on one person in HR to say we were “green lighted” to go.

Secret #2 — Any significant project touches multiple departments.  Get buy-in from each… early.  Ask for someone to be assigned to your team and attend meetings.  Get VP approval for the resources you think you’ll need up front.

I ended up launching the video training during Earth Month — but it was optional for all associates.  We had to do an internal marketing campaign to promote it — and follow up with quarterly reporting to track completion.

We then built the training into the on-boarding process for all new associates… and scheduled regional presentations for all General Managers.

Even had I emailed all these people, I could have had the same result.  In my experience, meeting in person is SO critical.

While I support virtual workplaces — I would only do so with video-chat and other audio/visual technologies.

The level of accountability completely shifts.  I want my projects to be, look, and feel like a “real team” with “real people” — not an email update that they receive.  Those are easy to dismiss… and push down the list of priorities.

Meeting weekly or monthly to report on your progress — face to face — with a team, provides a whole new level of accountability.  And… feelings of accomplishment at the end of a project!

If You Can’t Say It In One Page…
You’ve Done Something Wrong

A 1-page project charter is critical to keep everyone on the same page.  This is the one I still have the most trouble with… even though I know that it provides a ton of value.

Every time I make an excuse like, “Oh, it’s a fast project — we can go without a charter this one time” — it usually causes problems.

The quirky thing (that troubled me at first) with charters, is that often start out empty — because sustainability projects are usually inter-departmental.  That means, we often start with a high-level concept… then sift through and fine-tune several ideas before we implement anything.

So, you may need to gather input over time to complete a charter piecemeal — but I always start with these necessary items:

  • Project Name & Sponsor
  • Team Members, Roles & Contact Info
  • High-Level Concept or Goal

Then… as each department gives its input, we (eventually) clarify these additional items:

  • Scope of the Project
  • Specific Goals
  • Metrics by Which Success Will Be Measured
  • How & Who Will Collect the Data

It needs to be 1-page long… and be reviewed at the beginning of every meeting.

Secret #3 — You may think about your project all day long.  But co-workers spend their days thinking about their projects, their performance plans, and their families.  Give them a helpful reminder… every time.

word logoClick here to search through charter templates that you like best… from Word.

An Agenda…
Your Multi-Tool Extraordinaire

I (now) ALWAYS have an agenda.  Similar to how a 1-page charter reminds people what the project is all about… an agenda let’s people know what we are hoping to achieve TODAY towards the charter goals.

It provides the following benefits:

  • If I send it out ahead of time, people will come prepared
  • I can use it to stay on-task during the meeting, and end on time
  • People will not check-out less during the meeting
  • People can see how discussion topics relate to one another
  • People can use it to take notes, especially if they are given an assignment
  • I can edit it quickly, and send out notes right after the meeting

word logoClick here to search through agenda templates that you like best… from Word.

We even designed a dotted line and survey at the bottom of our agendas.  They allowed people to rate the meeting on several criteria, tear off the survey, and leave it behind so we could get better as we progressed.  And — it saved paper.

Get There Early…
Follow Up Immediately After

Not having an agenda cultivates doubt in any team… and leaves opportunities for excuses when things don’t get done.

Another way to cultivate doubt… is to appear unprepared at the meeting.

I ALWAYS try to avoid showing up to any meeting at the last second — or worse, late — and start plugging in my computer, etc.

In an ideal world, I block off 15-30 minutes before my meeting to prepare.  I use Outlook appointments and reminders.

In that time, I read through and print my agendas.  I make sure it makes sense to me.  Being able to answer questions like, “Why are we talking about this right now?  Shouldn’t we be discussing…” has proven priceless.  No one likes to be on a team that they feel is not creating value… or wasting their time.


At the end of each meeting, I assign tasks to team members, record those assignments, and ask what needs to be on the next meeting’s agenda.  Everyone uses the tear-off survey on the agenda to rate the meeting.

Secret #4 — People want to be asked to provide real value.  As long as it’s within reason, and meaningful… assigning tasks to team members is a compliment.

In an ideal world, I also block off 15-30 minutes following my meeting to edit the agenda (Word .doc) and email the notes — and assignments — to all team members.

That keeps everyone on the same page, gives us all a reference for later, and… honestly… holds people accountable because they see their name assigned to a task — on an email that went out to the whole team.


Get Updates Regularly…
Share With Everyone

Not only do I assign tasks, but I ask for weekly updates if the team isn’t meeting weekly.

Instructions are to copy in the whole team — if they forget, I forward to the team.

It’s important to maintain real progress… but also the sense of progress for each team member.

Secret #5 — Even if you’re moving forward… if no one can tell you’re moving forward, they will not stay engaged.

Nothing short-circuits progress like a serious lack of communication — or unclear communication.

I led a project where our outside software vendor provided a team member — a very intelligent person — who did not see any value in communicating deadlines or progress to our team.

He was the main “doer” of the group because he was programming… but the rest of the team were creating the specifications for their individual uses.

People eventually stopped showing up… because they had no idea if he was programming the software to do what they asked.   They weren’t getting updates.  There was no communication — so why should they attend a meeting?

dilbert_lacking communication

I had 2 separate “heart-to-heart” conversations with that team member and his boss before the project was finished.

This dynamic made the project late.  When he finally did report back — inevitably, the team members suggestions hadn’t been listened to clearly — there was rework to be done.

But worse — even though we had a successful project — the team that worked on it left with a bad taste in their mouth.  They were frustrated because they saw how much of their time was wasted unnecessarily.

And Learn to Say “No”

If there is one thing that has made me 10x more productive at work… and in life… it’s the ability to prioritize — and STOP multi-tasking.

That’s right.

Multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at the same time.

Prioritizing is being responsible for more than one thing at the same time — but choosing to do them one at a time... and, in the order of their importance.

Secret #6 — Every day, write down the 3 most important things you need to get done… in order of importance.  Do #1 until it’s finished — no interruptions.  Then, do #2.  Then, do #3.

Tim-Ferriss-The-4-Hour-Work-Week-ReviewDid you head just explode?

I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Work Week — even if you don’t want to quit your job.  It completely shifted my ability to get things done that matter most.

Seriously, you can block off times during the day to answer important emails.  Don’t train people to expect an email response from you in 30 seconds every time.

You can block off time to return important voicemails.  STOP letting little things interrupt you from getting the BIG things done… and done on time.

I use Outlook’s task list for this.  And it works well.  It also pushes tasks not complete today to tomorrow, so I can always re-sort the next day to determine my “big 3.”

At the beginning of every day, I drag the top 3 items to the top of the list and get to work.  I hold myself accountable.   Once I start on #1, I don’t answer the phone or respond to emails.  I turn off my pop-up alerts to avoid the temptation.

At 10 AM and 2 PM is when I make sure to respond to important messages that may be time-sensitive.  Otherwise, I wait til the end of the day when my “big 3” are already complete.

outlook task list



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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