Getting execs to shift their thinking is never easy. Here's a blueprint for making it happen.
When Samantha Joseph joined Iron Mountain, a $3 billion storage and records-management company, back in 2009, the company wasn't overtly concerned about corporate social responsibility.
She came aboard as a strategy manager, "knowing the company had no sustainability function and hoping to build it," writes John Butman, an expert on how ideas spread, in the Harvard Business Review. "She plunged into the strategy job, but also began to work on bringing the idea of sustainability to Iron Mountain--an exciting if daunting task, considering the number of employees, locations, facilities, trucks, and other real assets involved."
1. Accumulate evidence. "To gain influence for an idea, you need an awful lot of supporting material (data, references, cases, stories, and analysis) which can take decades to gather," he writes. "Sam didn't have that long, but she did accumulate enough material to make her the 'resident expert.' It took her a year to develop her case--largely on her own time--before she started talking about sustainability in public. But she was talking privately with lots of people all the while: gathering opinions, refining the ideas and practices, making connections, and gaining supporters."
2.Develop practices. "An idea is an abstraction that won't produce change until you provide people with specific, practical ways to put it into everyday use. [Dog whisperer] Cesar Millan's ideas get their teeth from his training methods of 'calm assertiveness.' Sam worked with colleagues from across Iron Mountain to develop a volunteer program, a solar energy pilot, and a strategic charitable partnership--which got people doing sustainability without having to pledge allegiance to a theory first."
3.Create a sacred expression. "Practices without theory are nothing more than tips and techniques. You need to find your best form and use it to create a 'sacred' expression--a talk, a video, a written piece, a visual--the most complete, authoritative, and compelling articulation of your idea that you can manage. Sam put together a short video that made the case, showed how Iron Mountain was involved with the community, and got people energized and emotionally engaged."
4.Encourage 'respiration' around your idea. "Sam did not expect to do a TED Talk or appear on Colbert, but she needed to engage with the audiences who would be most affected by, and most able to implement, the sustainability idea. The only way to get an idea breathing on its own is to show up, in person. Sam put together a road-show and visited many of Iron Mountain's corporate departments and facilities, conversing and responding to questions. After she left, people kept talking. The idea started to come to life."
5.Include your personal narrative. "Idea entrepreneurs always present their idea in the context of their own life story. T. Berry Brazelton, an expert on babies, relates anecdotes about himself as a kid. Sam talked about how her fascination with sustainability arose from an early family relationship. She presented the business case first, but the personal story gave the idea personality."
6.Align with a metric. "Influence cannot be definitively measured in financial terms, but people need some way to calculate its value. People associate Malcolm Gladwell's idea of mastery through the '10,000 hours of practice' metric. As the sustainability practices took hold at Iron Mountain, Sam measured and reported on key performance indicators--particularly cost savings--along with non-financial measures, such as volunteer participation rates, that demonstrated its success."
7.Expect backlash. "When you propose a new idea, expect an intense response--from useful debate to useless sniping. Sam didn't experience direct backlash, but she did come up against some challenges. She spent almost a year talking and debating, pushing and being pushed, before respiration began to take hold. She realized (as all idea entrepreneurs do) that an intense response--positive and negative--is a sign that people are taking the idea seriously. No challenges, no point."