6 ways to get executive buy-in for sustainability

What do executives have in common with school kids? They both can be pretty picky, says Laura Vanderkam. Jennifer Woofter applies these lessons to sustainability.

School kids and executives aren't so different, according to Laura Vanderkam

Executives and school kids can be pretty picky, as described in the Fast Company article 6 Quick Lessons from the School Lunch Line for Pleasing Picky Customers by Laura Vanderkam. Her helpful tips can also be applied to sustainability efforts in a company when trying to convince company executives to green-light a project. Vanderkam’s six lessons are listed below the below, followed by ways that these lessons can be applied to sustainability.

1. Involve them in the process

It's easier to get approval for something when the person you are trying to convince feels ownership of it -- so ask for input and solicit feedback as you begin to plan and refine your proposal. Find out what makes your executives tick (cost savings, innovation, beating a competitor, etc.) and work that aspect into your pitch.

2. Give a nod to what they know

If you can build on an existing program or process that is well-tested and well-loved, all the better. Anything you can do to reduce the risk (or perceived risk) of a new sustainability venture will make it more palatable for executives to swallow.

3. Free samples never hurt

Can you give executives a taste of what's to come? Whether it's the results of a small pilot study ("Look, in just a week we saved $568- imagine what we could do by rolling out this program companywide!") or a tangible thing to hold (a prototype of a new product), giving people a "bite" to try before committing to the whole meal can lower their resistance to something new.

4. Use peer dynamics, people are naturally competitive

Sometimes you can use C-Suite dynamics to your advantage -- but tread carefully. You may find that certain executives are eager to prove themselves. That may mean that they challenge each other to find better and better sustainability initiatives. (Or it may mean that they undercut each other -- so again, be thoughtful in how you play office politics.) Alternately, consider framing your idea in terms of your company versus your competition. How can your initiative help leapfrog over your industry peers? How can it help you stay competitive? How can it open new markets that others haven't yet spotted?

5. Don't give up immediately

Anyone who has tried to sell their idea at the executive level has probably already learned this lesson, but it's worth repeating. It's unlikely that any significant initiative will get immediate approval -- so think early and often about how to introduce a phased approach, or plan your requests so that executives have plenty of time to consider and decide.

6. On the other hand, accept your limitations

Sometimes you just have to let it go. If executives are dead set against your program, move on. The beautiful thing about sustainability is that there is never a shortage of great ideas. So find the next one and start planning. (And don't forget that it's possible that your timing was just off -- keep your rejected idea in a drawer somewhere. It might be just what's needed six months from now!)

Jennifer Woofter is an Advisory Board member for 2degrees, and the founder and President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting , a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing, mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter .