Close article 26th January 2016

The power of storytelling for business engagement on sustainability

When I started the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership in 2012, I saw it as the final staging post on my journey from a career in communications to one in sustainability that had started when I was at BT. I thought my PR days were behind me. My career was no longer about selling stories but about changing the world. Stories were for kids.

The expansion of my role at BT to director of communications and CSR had opened my eyes to the importance of sustainability. I was fortunate to have a role where I got to engage across the business from the board to product design teams and call centre advisors, and one that spanned both internal and external engagement. I quickly realised this was where my passion lay.

Whilst at BT, I participated in CISL’s Climate Leaders Programme, a three-day workshop for business leaders, and really enjoyed exploring how the corporate sector was responding to climate change. When I found out about the new Master’s programme, I jumped at the chance to apply. I was attracted by the breadth of the syllabus as I was keen to deepen my knowledge about sustainability issues. I was also quite happy to leave my communications days behind. I’d decided by then that communications was pretty superficial and not something I wanted to continue to do.

The Master’s was an incredibly rewarding experience. There were senior practitioners from around the world. Some had arrived at the topic via health and safety or engineering, some through management consultancy, or finance, operations, legal or sales. The programme was demanding but intellectually stimulating and for many of us quite transformational.

What intrigued me most, however, was how often the question asked at the end of a session was: how do we communicate this to our employees / the board / suppliers? And it wasn’t just the students asking the questions. Often it was the experts that were struggling with it and asking for our help.

It started to dawn on me that communications wasn’t something I could leave behind if I was to be successful as a sustainability practitioner. I started to notice that often sustainability folk were some of the worst at ‘winning friends and influencing people’. They were too often stuck in the data and the complexity and incapable of enrolling others. The reality is that trying to advance sustainability in organisations is a tough job.

In countless interviews for SustainAbility’s latest research on integration, practitioners talked about the qualities required to embed sustainability. You need to charm and persuade, understand the business, be persistent without being irritating, and make it meaningful. As Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks and Spencer, often says, you should always start with the question: what is your problem that I can help solve?

In short, to be a successful sustainability person, you need to be a great communicator and storyteller. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your listener and create a compelling vision. If you are perceived as the pessimistic internal tree hugger or data digger, you will send people running in the other direction.

Not only do you need to paint a picture but sometimes you need to take your senior leaders by the hand and help them see the issues for themselves. This belief led to my dissertation topic: the impact of experiential learning programmes on business leaders’ attitudes to sustainability.

The inspiration for this was two weeks volunteering in Malawi at the end of the first year of my Master’s, which I spent in one of the poorest part of the country visiting projects and working in a rural hospital. Suddenly, issues like deforestation, climate change, poverty and malnutrition were no longer just topics on a reading list but the daily reality for the people I met. Global challenges came alive through the stories of fishermen, teachers, doctors and NGO workers.

What I found through my research was that, in most cases, seeing social and environmental issues first hand ignites leaders’ commitment. When you have visited a slum in Mumbai, or chatted to women in Nairobi who queue for hours for water, or been inside a prison or a homeless shelter, you can begin to connect the issues to your products and services and start to reconsider how you behave as a business.

These kinds of experiences, can result, for example, in a new determination to create products that use less water, or a commitment to employment practices that don’t discriminate against ex-offenders. Leaders come back to their organisations with personal stories that engage and motivate colleagues to act.

It is clear that business is increasingly starting to see the link between communications, engagement and behaviour change. At SustainAbility, we are now being asked not just to help create strategy, but also to build compelling narratives and employee engagement programmes to ensure that the strategy gets embedded.

I have now come full circle. I’ve gone from seeing communications as superficial to something that is essential for business engagement and change. Stories are not just for kids. They can inspire action and change.


Originally posted on Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

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