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Getting started as a Sustainability Manager

As a result of the increased complexity, legislation, and demand surrounding sustainability, a lot of SMEs are now considering developing a formal policy and appointing a manager with specific responsibility for sustainability. This means that many people are coming to the role of Sustainability Manager for the first time and it can be quite overwhelming. At the Better Hospitality Conference this year, we held an expert panel discussion focused on how to go about introducing a sustainability policy, recruit for the Sustainability Manager role, and help the new Sustainability Manager get started.

Expert speakers:

Domini Hogg, Founder of supply chain intelligence platform, Tried & Supplied (chair)

Andrea Zick, PA to GM at OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar and Brasserie and Chair of the Sustainability Forum for Harvey Nichols

Holly Letch, Head of Sustainability at JKS Restaurants

Dr Susann Stritzke, Head of Sustainability and Strategy at the specialist sustainability consultancy, NDL Management Group

Gaining the skills, knowledge and experience you need

Internal operational experience

One of the things that all speakers agree on, is that it is typically best to recruit someone internally for the Sustainability Manager role. This is because sustainability often causes nervousness around new processes and systems. Someone internal already understands what it’s like working in an operational role within the business, so the rest of the team feel like they can trust him/her/them to make manageable suggestions. It’s also very helpful to have prior knowledge of the different characters, motivations and team dynamics involved. This makes getting buy-in and influencing behaviour easier. Holly explains, “the fact that I had ten years’ Front of House experience before I took on the role of Sustainability Manager, turned out to be very helpful. It meant that I was more accepted. People lowered their guard because they knew I understood the challenges they faced and the pressures that explain why things don’t get done. It means I have their trust.”

Developing and promoting a member of staff internally towards sustainability management also ensures that the sustainability manager in charge already has a profound knowledge of the business and its operations. This makes it easier for them to do what Susann indicates is essential, and tailor their sustainability strategy to the specific requirements of the business.

If you’re coming into this role from outside the business, you can overcome your initial disadvantage by volunteering to work in different parts of the business first and getting to know key members of the team that way.

Knowledge of sustainability

Although this might seem overwhelming at first, especially if this is your first Sustainability Manager role, upskilling yourself on sustainability is actually not so difficult. There is lots you can read and research online. The UN offers free sustainability trainings and platforms like coursera.org provide a range of e-learning courses either on a paid or free basis. You can also attend conferences like the Better Hospitality Conference and other sustainability events throughout the year. Eventbrite is a good place to look. The Sustainable Restaurant Association and BCorp offer plenty of educational events and community support to members. Working with an experienced consultant from an early stage can also ensure skills and knowledge transfer to get up to speed quickly.

Behaviour change and leadership

This is one of the hardest aspects of the Sustainability Manager role. Everyone is looking to you for direction, yet that direction often involves getting everyone else to change what can be habits of a lifetime, like turning on all the ovens when arriving in the kitchen. Andrea suggests developing your skills of assertive listening. “Come in with curiosity. Listen to what everyone has to say, but also question what they mean. Often what’s lies beneath what they originally told you is more important.” Understanding different motivations and aligning yourself with individual objectives is also important.

Research and analysis

Not all is what it seems when it comes to sustainability. You need to be prepared to be challenged and to challenge. Ecosystems and business operations are complex both in and of themselves and in how they interact with each other. You’ll need to be able to understand the key feedback loops and drivers and design ways of analysing these as efficiently and effectively as possible. Collecting and evaluating the relevant internal data is a key pillar for any sustainability strategy and implementation efforts. Susann emphasises that relevant data needs to be identified at an early stage to inform strategic sustainability targets.

Project management

Given the nature of JKS Restaurants, Holly says she’s like a sustainability consultant to 14 different businesses, while Andrea is often juggling 10 different projects simultaneously, all of them running at a different pace. Both of them are co-ordinating activities across multiple different stakeholders. It’s clear that being a Sustainability Manager requires strong project management skills. Susann advises her hospitality clients to make use of project management tools such as Gantt charts; identify priorities; check feasibility; and create clearly-defined action plans aligned with business objectives.

Communication skills

How you communicate what you’re trying to accomplish and what you have achieved is paramount to your success. If you get it right, it will help you get the buy-in you need, focus everyone on driving progress towards your goals, and motivate people to do more.

If you feel you need to upskill yourself on some of these, Udemy offers some great, inexpensive online courses to get you started. You can also request financial support from your employer if there’s a particular course you think you would benefit from. Ultimately, your employer should benefit from this too!

Positioning sustainability in the business and getting buy-in

Align yourself to key stakeholder objectives and set expectations

Susann always starts work with a new client by giving key stakeholders a list of 10 potential objectives and drivers for developing and implementing a sustainability strategy and requests various team-members from the client to rank them in order of their importance to them. This not only illustrates the key benefits of a feasible sustainability strategy, which can also include cost-savings, risk mitigation and positive environmental impacts, it also informs the strategy in terms of priorities and highlights different motivations and perspectives of key team members. Aligning these objectives vertically and horizontally across the operations is key to ensure buy-in, identify obstacles and develop effective communication strategies internally. Your sustainability reporting and action plan should be designed around these objectives. Susann also suggests setting expectations. “We warn our clients right from the beginning, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes longer than you think.”

Identify champions for sustainability throughout the business

A Sustainability Manager’s work simply can’t be done alone. One of the best ways of implementing change is developing an ‘army’ of sustainability ambassadors or champions for you in strategic points around the business. It should be easy to spot these people as you start talking to each part of the business. Those that are most enthusiastic, will be the most likely candidates, and it’s an opportunity for them to develop their careers. Both Holly and Andrea have established a fantastic network of Sustainability Ambassadors through the business. Several from JKS Restaurants were also attending the Better Hospitality Conference and enthusiastically learning from others and sharing their knowledge.

Motivating the whole team

Holly found that taking a holistic approach and including staff welfare as part of the sustainability goals, helped to gain buy-in from the wider team. Other businesses, such as Pandox, have introduced Green Incentives for everyone, which is like a bonus scheme related to sustainability performance. As Susann points out, the latest behavioural research reveals that positive motivation is always the best driver to ensure internal compliance, which is key to achieving sustainability goals. Team trainings guided by a behavioural expert, such as offered by NDL, achieve high impact and ensure commitment from the whole team.

Make use of independent frameworks

Independent frameworks like the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating, BCorp, Green Key or Green Tourism can be very helpful not only in providing you with a clear structure and set of targets, but also in giving you the validation of what you’re doing to support your activities internally. Andrea had been trying to introduce a food waste initiative internally. This became a lot easier once the SRA started a campaign to focus on food waste. Many of them also offer educational materials on sustainability and member networks for knowledge sharing. Holly explains, “we made the decision very early on to work with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), and we found the independent framework it offered to be extremely helpful.”

Adapting to the specifics of your business operations

Recognise that different parts of your business might need a different focus

Businesses are structured in a multitude of different ways and hospitality, in particular, boasts a wide array of different business models. In Holly’s case, for example, many of the 14 different brands she worked with were better suited to specific sustainability goals. Some had menus that could more easily adapt to local, seasonal sourcing than others. While other brands could more easily support community projects.

Establish a realistic baseline for everyone and know where you can push further

In the context of considerable variation, it’s important to establish a common baseline of values and policies you are confident everyone can adhere to. You can then build on these wherever you see the opportunity and the enthusiasm to push further.

Organise your time around the rhythms of the business

All speakers emphasised the importance of organising your time around the rhythms of your business and there were some great suggestions. Holly comments, “certain times of the year (the run up to Christmas or Diwali, for example) are super-busy and I don’t touch the restaurants then; nor do I try to organise anything at 1.00 pm on Fridays. Instead, that’s when I do the data collection and assessment. January is the time to gear people up a bit and introduce new initiatives. Everyone has a bit more bandwidth. There’s a sense of optimism and people are in the mood to make positive resolutions.”

Susann suggests using the peak times to observe how your teams are operating under pressure. Try not to disturb them, but it’s a great way of checking if your sustainability initiatives are capable of withstanding peak pressure. If they aren’t, these times will likely show you most clearly where the friction lies.

Andrea, meanwhile, points out a different type of business rhythm. Noting down key contract dates in your diary and planning around them can make a big difference. They can create urgency; help with negotiating specific targets, such as renewable energy, into supplier relationships; and open discussions for change and problem solving.

Driving progress towards sustainability goals

Give your operational teams a clear focus and responsibility

Remember that sustainability is one of many things that your operational teams will be dealing with, so try to give them one thing to focus on at a time. Otherwise, they could become overwhelmed and not achieve anything at all. Holly suggestsrunning a series of “Sustainability Spotlights” on topics such as food waste. Reducing food waste and saving energy are the quickest wins for most businesses, so they would be a good starting point. You also want to make sure that someone is operationally responsible for delivering the project and reaching the target.

But manage multiple projects yourself

Meanwhile, like a duck that’s madly paddling underwater without anyone else seeing, you’ll want to be managing multiple projects at a time. The reason for this is that they will each have their own pace and this is likely to be unpredictable. When one project suddenly stalls for no obvious reason, you’ll want to pick up the pace on other projects that are starting to gain momentum.

Help your teams overcome challenges

If one of your projects does stall, Andrea’s advice is to give the team running it a little space. The likelihood is they came under pressure from other aspects of the business and they won’t appreciate you breathing fire on them like a dragon! When you think things have settled down again, check back in with them. Help them understand how much they have learnt and how they can use this knowledge to overcome some of the challenges they encountered. What caused them to stall? Did the context change or did they hit a wall because something they tried didn’t work?

Give lots of notice and phase things in slowly

Both Andrea and Susann admit it might be the influence of their German culture, but they favour giving their teams lots of notice for new initiatives and policies. If you phase things in slowly and communicate as much as 6 months in advance, what you’ll be expecting of them and how they can input, you’ll meet less resistance. Susann also suggests doing soft launches of policies in case you have to adapt it off the back of practical challenges faced on launch.

Monitor and communicate progress

You can’t improve what you don’t measure, nor can you easily motivate people to go further if you don’t communicate and celebrate what they have already achieved.

But ensure you balance your time between doing and assessing

But equally you wouldn’t be able to improve if you spent all your time reporting and none of your time implementing new initiatives and driving progress on the ground. It would be easy as a Sustainability Manager to get so wrapped up in reporting and measuring everything, that you might run out of time to actually achieve anything. Getting the right balance is crucial and planning your time around the rhythms of the business operations can help with this too. You might also want to rely on sustainability reporting tools like Tried & Supplied to save you time assessing, enabling you to focus more on doing.

Communicating results

If you’ve got to this stage, you deserve to breath a deep sigh of relief and give yourself a big pat on the back. Being a Sustainability Manager is not easy and now you have some results to communicate! The main thing here is to recognise that you have three different audiences: senior management and possibly your investors, the rest of the business, your customers.

Senior management and investors

This audience need explicit reports. They like numbers.

Project teams and the rest of the business

This audience needs succinct, tangible messages ideally with supporting visuals. They want to hear immediately when key milestones are reached and be able to celebrate the individuals and teams that helped to achieve them.

Customers

Customers appreciate similarly tangible messages to the rest of the business, but legally you have to be much more careful here not to fall foul of the Green Claims Code by overexaggerating your claims. Hopefully, you weren’t doing this with your senior management or the rest of the business either, but when you start publishing your claims, you open yourself up to public scrutiny. It’s worth preparing your teams with a sheet of Frequently Asked Questions in relation to the claims you plan to make, so they know how to answer customers when asked. It’s also important to make sure your marketing and operations teams are joined up on the messaging and the delivery. If your marketing team plan a message around the sustainability of your current menu and then a chef changes the menu without telling the marketing team, you could be in trouble.

If, initially, you’re struggling to make any significant progress within the business, you could try shining a light onto successful supplier initiatives. So long as what you are saying is factual, you shouldn’t be worried about sharing what you’re doing. For example, “just received a crate of x supplier’s wonderful organic beetroot” with a photo of the crate is great, while claiming “all our vegetables are organic” when only 95% are, could expose you to a fine.

And one last piece of advice from Susann – “Don’t be afraid. Consider sustainability as an exciting opportunity to make a positive impact. No-one can do everything at the same time, but we can all do something.”

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