Becoming a Change Agent for Sustainability

by Michael Kane


change, sustainability, change agent,


What is a change agent?

A few summers ago, I attended a week-long training on campus sustainability at the University of Vermont. It was one of the best trainings I’ve ever attended and the facilitator (Debra Rowe) at one point, after I had described some of the things I had accomplished in my career, congratulated me on being a successful activist for sustainability. That’s when the trouble started; you see I have never considered myself an activist, to me an activist spends way too much time screaming and making other people feel bad. I have always preferred to consider myself a subversive, someone who works somewhat under the radar to make change. The fact is though, that the term subversive carries a heavy negative connotation so it’s not a label I use for myself very often. In Vermont our disagreement resulted in me coming to a change in how I should refer to myself, so I’ve come around to the term change agent. I don’t think that labels are nearly as important as actions but this particular label got me thinking in a couple of ways. First, really what is a change agent? Secondly, at the encouragement of the facilitator, to really take a look at how in fact you do make change happen within an organization or community. The result of course is what follows.

I sat down to answer the first question and what really came to my mind first was what a change agent isn’t. In reviewing what a change agent isn’t, it is clear that I am reacting to the role the activist plays. I won’t go as far as to say that there isn’t a time and place for activism, but for me it seems to be a path that is too easily and frequently taken, when more could be accomplished by other methods.

For me a change agent isn’t a radical, a pest or a parent to the community or organization in which they reside. We all know, particularly on sustainability issues, that person who is constantly pointing out that you can recycle your soda can, or that your plastic bottle is KILLING THE PLANET! Similarly, the less in your face but equally annoying environmental parent who is always leaving you information, or gently reminding you that it’s everyone’s responsibility to care for the planet. It isn’t the message that is the problem from these folks as much as it is the constant feeling of being nagged and looked down upon. Condescension is never something that inspires unity or support for your position; no one likes people who think they are better than everyone else.

Likewise the radical is not a change agent. The person that is disruptive, in everyone’s face, purposefully skirting the rules and agreements that the community has agreed upon only serves one purpose and that is to get attention. Unfortunately, all too often the attention is primarily focused on the individual and their acts and not nearly enough on the reasons for their actions in the first place. I will say however, there is one time when an activist or even a radical is very necessary and that is at the very beginning of any movement. When no one is paying attention to an issue, getting people’s attention is massively important and necessary. I wonder where global whale populations would be at today if we hadn’t all seen those videos of Greenpeace Activists putting themselves between Russian harpoons and whales in the middle of the ocean on rubber Zodiac boats. However, once there is attention, in my opinion to achieve real, lasting (sustainable) change, you need the effective work of change agents, not activists.

So in coming back to defining what a change agent is, I have come to the two following definitions, a change agent for sustainability is:

A person who changes/moves the culture and behavior of an organization to a more sustainable place by facilitating sustainable changes (this doesn’t happen overnight).

A person who doesn’t accept the status quo or the mythologies that things are impossible to change for the better or that we’ve tried this before so it won’t work.

Purposefully I sat down to write these definitions before I dove into the literature in any significant way. Once I did, I found a lot of information on what change agents are, very few solid definitions, it seems what a lot of what people seem to want to do is lay out the characteristics of a change agent more than to define what they are. However, in the comments section of a blog piece on what a change agent is I saw a really succinct summary of not just what a change agent is, but the whole process of change and here it is:

A change agent recognizes the opportunity for change, identifies the best approach, becomes a catalyst and facilitates that change whether by design, planning or inspiration ~ Kevin Hulett

I think in fact his definition is better than mine if for no other reason that it is succinct, comprehensive and easy to remember.


Change is not welcome

change agent, change management

Change is painful, no one likes it, and typically it only occurs either for ulterior motives or when the pain of the status quo exceeds the pain brought about by change. We make changes when we think it will get us something we want or when not changing is painful. The real changes in life come when without the change there are serious consequences, like significant health issues or if by not changing we lose something we value. However, even when both of these major motivators are in play, keep in mind how difficult it is for someone to overcome an addiction; this is a good reminder that change is hard.


Essential Knowledge and Skills

So as a change agent there are certain skills you must have or develop and certain knowledge bases you must possess. It is important to remember that sustainability touches every part of any organization or community. What systems you don’t know in-depth you need to learn about or to find allies who have the knowledge that you don’t.

You must understand both institutional and personal priorities. This means that you must have an understanding of what is on paper, the things that are “supposed” to happen. Typically these are the goals and directions that are found in your organization’s mission and vision statements and your strategic and other master planning documents. It is also equally as important to understand the reality of your organization as well. Do these planning documents actually drive what happens in your organization or are there other factors that dominate how and why things happen the way they do? How much of what actually happens is driven by institutional motives and how much is actually driven by the personal motives of individuals?

In most organizations typically the driver is the personal priorities of those individuals who wield the most actual power within the organization. Like planning documents, there are plenty of people in your organization who have power on paper. Then there are the people who truly make things happen and drive the direction of the organization, people who have “actual” power. Very often this actual power is conferred on them by their own abilities and the power of their personality.

Most of us do not think specifically about power in our institutions, so as an exercise identify the five most influential people in your organization. These are the people with actual power, what motivates them, what do they want to achieve? If you don’t know, it’s important that you find out. Often there is a much overlooked way to find out, ask them. A simple and pleasant conversation about what they think the institutional goals are, what they should be, and how they can be achieved can be very enlightening.

It is also helpful to do this exercise for the people who have power on paper as well. The points of convergence between these two groups will be the areas where you can most easily and effectively work, especially if you can find a way to connect those areas to sustainability. Since almost every part of the organization is touched by sustainability it should be possible to find those sweet spots, even if they are not the areas you are most passionate about, they are areas where you can be successful and can be great starting points for your efforts.

Like the rest of the organization you also have both personal and positional power. The power of your position is what personnel and parts and of the organization you have the authority to manage or control. This is not to be confused with what you have responsibility for; the unfortunate reality for most of us is that we very often have responsibility for areas that we have  little or no authority to change. This brings us to the other type of power we each possess, our personal power.

Our personal power is the power that we bring to any situation by the force of our personality and who we are. This power is developed by our personality, our previous actions and in a large part by how we treat people. Our personal power’s foundation is our personal and professional relationships with the people in our organization. It is important to ask yourself what is your own personal/positional power? Be introspective and understand your personality, the way you impact others and what your true relationships are with everyone in your organization.

The key question you need to ask yourself in relation to your own personal and positional power is what do you have actual authority over and what do you need permission to do? For areas where we have positional and personal power we can act rather unilaterally to make change. We can make change in those areas as long as we examine and understand the implications of our actions. For areas where we do not, it is imperative to understand who has that power and whether either our positional or personal power can assist us in this area.


Where are the resources?

When thinking about resources we typically go straight to thinking about money, remember money is not the only resource time, support, people, materials, marketing, buzz and even rumors and gossip can be resources. But don’t forget about money either, there is a good reason we think of it first. However there are a lot of things that can be accomplished without money, or with very little. Once you know what resources are available and what resources you need it is imperative to know who truly controls those resources. This relates directly back to our discussion about personal and positional power. What is your relationship with the person who truly controls those resources?


Planning Effective Change

Have a dream. Take a few minutes and sit back and think about what you are trying to really accomplish. Is it just to make your department more sustainable, the organization, maybe it’s to be a leader in sustainability in your community. What do you want out of this for yourself? Is just helping your organization or community become more sustainable enough for you? Is this the way to a bigger or better job, a career change? It is important to be clear with yourself what your motives are in this effort. You do not have to share those motives, but understanding your personal motives will help you find ways to keep yourself going when things get tough, and those times will come.

Along those same lines what are you passionate about? Passion and motivation are intricately linked and focusing on what your passion is will also help you stay motivated and sustain you when things are difficult. To reach your goals you may have to at times really focus on things you are not as excited about. Knowing your passion can allow you to wrap elements of that passion into whatever project you’re involved in, helping keep you motivated as you move forward.

Understand the history of sustainability in your community or organization. How has the idea of sustainability been viewed historically in your organization? What previous efforts were undertaken and who led those efforts? How much unexpressed support or resentment for the idea of sustainability exists in your organization? Answering these questions will be crucial to understanding how you address sustainability issues and whether or not you can even overtly talk about sustainability.

Analyze the topography of your organization. This means thinking about what you are dreaming about accomplishing and seeing how it fits into the overall structure of your organization. Analyze this with an eye toward identifying points of resistance, the limitations of the organization or personnel, where do you and your ideas fit within the organization? Which of the things you are planning have to be moved uphill with great effort and which things will coast easily downhill into the organization?

Determine the power structure. You’ve already thought about who has the real power in an organization, now is the time to identify how that impacts your plans and dreams. Of the people who hold the power; which are allies, which are obstacles? In looking at the topography of the organization are their pathways around the obstacles? If so, who has the power to help you along those pathways?

Develop a multilevel plan. Many times I hear people say one of two things, either attack the small things first, or keep your eye on the prize and nothing else. Both of these approaches have serious limitations. First, if you only focus on the small, easily achievable accomplishments you may lose track of the end goal. If you only keep your eye on the prize and nothing else then you miss lots of opportunities to accomplish the small things and you may never have any success at all.

By using a multilevel plan you work across all levels of the organization and gain benefits from each approach. The short-term easily achievable items are great for creating initial success and giving the people involved a sense of accomplishment. You can feed off that initial success to motivate people to take on the mid-level goals of your plan. Your initial successes also give you excellent marketing opportunities, and can garner you support, resources and allies. People like to attach themselves to success; the important thing to remember is that as you develop allies you must focus them towards assisting you with your mid-level goals.

At the same time you need to be working toward the larger goals of your plans and dreams. If you envision that final goal as a destination, then going back to the topography of the organization you can see the small and medium goals as building the path toward that final destination. Almost everything you accomplish at the lower levels should have an additional trait of helping you to attain the larger goal.

Always be thinking about the ripples, the intended and unintended consequences of your actions. Be careful not to take easy successes that may later be obstacles to the success of your larger level plans. A mistake many people make along the way is that they get stuck at the tactical level, dealing with the immediacy of issues. This means they are not taking the time to be strategic, considering the long-term implications of their tactical decisions.
Finally, always be looking to find ways to leverage what you have done to a higher level.    As Debra Rowe stressed at the training in Vermont, why let the work only help you at one level.  Leverage what you did at campus level up to the system or regional level.

Assess your positional and personal realities. As you get started take time to assess your position in the organization or community. In your current position, what can you accomplish alone, what will you need allies for; will your actions put your current position at risk? Do you reasonably have the time you need to take on this challenge? Will the effort you have to put in to make your dream happen have any personal consequences? No cause, no issue is worth ruining your life over, or even taking it over for that matter. Balance between life and work, between life and causes should always be paramount. Sustainability is important but it is likely not the single most important thing in your life, don’t damage what is, in order to work for the issue of making a more sustainable world. Do only what you can and have to time and energy to do, you’re not in this alone.

Try and identify obstacles at each level of your plan. We’ve talked about it briefly but you need to identify the obstacles at each level of your plan. Now that you know what you want to do, how you want to do it at each level, analyze each obstacle in your way. Some of those obstacles will need to be avoided; there will be no benefit politically or otherwise to fighting that battle. Some obstacles will only need to be educated for them to no longer be obstacles and in the end can become incredible allies. Some obstacles will have to be battled, but honestly, this can be avoided in almost every case. The most important analysis is this; what can you accomplish that will be in the best interest of both the organization and your dream? Win-win, as cliché as it is, will always be the best choice when moving forward.

Determine what resources you have. Take inventory of the resources that you have available to you. What money is available to help you, how can it be used and who has the authority to spend that money without getting permission first. What money is available under condition of approval, who has that approval authority, and what does that person want? How can you tie what you want, to what they want, in order get to that win-win situation?

Remember the other resources that are at least as valuable as money. Is there staff time that you can get access to, marketing help for publicity? If you partner with someone or give them credit for an accomplishment it may buy you staff time, equipment or even space that you might not ordinarily have access to through your position.

What allies do you have in the pursuit of making your organization or community more sustainable? They are your biggest and best resource. Many change agents share a common flaw, we want to do it all ourselves, and for that reason the ability to delegate and trust others is your most important skill. Remember the list of potential resources mentioned earlier and never forget to make use of each and every one of them. The audience for everything you do is your community and is also a source of allies and resources. Always be aware of exactly who is in your audience, how they can most effectively participate, support and impact your plans.

Developing allies you don’t already have. We typically know before we start who will be our biggest supporters, but often we miss potential allies who may not be obvious or vocal supporters of our goals. It is important to let  people know that you are working toward improving your organization regardless of what terminology you are using. Often discussions about increasing efficiency or greening your own office leads to surprising connections. Recently when I put out a list of sustainability highlights from the last year via e-mail, I included in the distribution list all of the managers on campus. I was surprised to quickly get responses from two managers about the accomplishments in their areas that were not on the list. It turned out I had two secret allies I didn’t even know about and have since been able to wrap them and their enthusiasm into our overall campus efforts.

Don’t worry about who gets credit. Be able to work hard, be successful and not care about whom gets or takes credit for change as long as the change that you seek occurs. I’ll be honest, it hurts sometimes that you worked tirelessly on something and then at the last minute someone from above swoops in and gets all the credit.  What’s important is what you accomplish, it’s hard, but you have to remove your ego from the process.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Robert W. Woodruff, the founder of Coca-Cola. During his life he contributed huge amounts of money to charities anonymously. The following quote was his personal creed and a great mantra for creating change:

coke quote

There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit ~ Robert W. Woodruff


Implementing Effective Change

You have a dream or idea about what you want to accomplish, you’ve thought about your personal power, your organization and your community, about what allies and resources you may have. Now it’s time to take that initial thinking and planning and move it into action.

Have a clear and reasonable agenda. This is really what you have been doing up to this point, but it’s time to lay it all down on paper. Make sure your plan is reasonable in all of the key aspects that make it feasible, time, motivation and all of the various resources you’ll need. Remember the multilevel nature of your planning, clearly identify the easily achievable, the mid-level and high level goals. Make sure your communication and marketing efforts are also clearly laid out. Take a deep breath, the most exciting part of any effort is that first moment right before you start.

Grab an ally and go get that low hanging fruit. You know the topography, where the obstacles are, and you know where the low hanging fruit is and how to go from there to the mid-level and higher level goals. So first thing, find a like-minded individual and grab those easily accessible achievements, no need to start with grand proclamations, just accomplish something easy, regardless of the weight of its impact. This might be e-mailing people who know you will be allies and asking them to sit down to a brain storming session. It may simply be making sure the recycling bins in your office are accessible and clearly labeled. Maybe it’s signing up to a listserve so you have contact with peers trying to accomplish similar goals. It might even be deciding and calendaring attendance at a local sustainability organization’s meetings or reading a book to get ideas. Whatever it is, no matter how small, it’s a start and an accomplishment.


Start climbing the hill. You will run out of the easy things fairly quickly, that’s fine. Hopefully you haven’t been doing those things alone; remember early shared successes make for long-term allies. Take an opportunity after a reasonable time to reflect, communicate and internally market those early accomplishments.

Pick one of your mid-level goals and carefully sit down and list out what it will take to make it happen. What resources will you need, how do you get them, identify any obstacles and how they will be dealt with? Then start doing it, implement what you need to do to accomplish that goal. An absolute open secret, big things are usually accomplished with careful planning and simple hard work.

Give people what they need, to get what you want. Remember someone doesn’t have to share your philosophy or motivations or even support your goals to be helpful. However, everybody needs or wants something. Think back to the exercise on identifying what the people with real power want and need. If you can provide these people with what they want or need, very often you can get what you want or need to get done. Now, I’m not recommending making any deals with the devil here, there are always multiple ways to get things accomplished, so if the price is too high, find another way.

When I first went to work at a former college I sat down early on to meet and talk with the college president. I asked him directly, “what is it you want from me in this position?” His equally direct and honest answer, “positive press for the college, you make the college look good and I’m your best friend.” He meant it and I then had a clear path to getting done what I needed to get done. By bringing in positive press and awards I served my own goals but also kept an incredibly powerful and helpful ally very happy.

An important thing to remember however in this type of relationship, never make anyone stick their neck out for you. Some people will be willing to do this, but in the end it can create a very damaging situation for you and them. It’s ok to stick your own neck out, but never put anyone else, ally or not in that position. In the long run people will respect you for not doing to them what many other people are happy and willing to do and it will keep you from being accused of the all too common adage of throwing people under the bus. Remember, your personal power, one of your greatest assets, is almost entirely built upon the perceptions of others and how you treat them.

Overcome the inevitable obstacles to change. We said it earlier, people don’t like change and they will resist it. This simple fact will make getting what you want to get done harder than it should be. Some people will become obstacles in the path of what you are trying to accomplish so you need to get past them. The very first thing you have to do is identify why they are an obstacle. Maybe they don’t understand what you are trying to do or why you are trying to do it. For these people often it’s simply a matter of sitting down, explaining your position and answering their questions. Others will oppose what you are doing based on philosophical reasons. It’s best early on to go around these people; they will not be able to be reasoned with so find another path. The same reality will exist for people who just hate change, don’t waste your time, energy or political capital fighting with them.

Of course no one likes the taste in their mouth from biting their tongue and letting someone obstruct them or force them to find another way. At times however it is necessary, so how do you effectively go around these obstructions. One great way is to tie what you are doing to another successful effort, particularly if this effort is the pet project of one of the power brokers in your organization. Joining your efforts related to energy efficiency with the chief financial officer’s crusade for more financial responsibility can be a great way to get around someone who believes sustainability is some kind of hippie fad. Efficiency is a great way to represent the goal of almost all of your sustainability efforts, it is very hard to argue against the idea of being more efficient and saving money, regardless of what anyone’s motives are in making that happen.

change, change agent

It is also important to look at alternate ways to accomplish what you truly are trying to accomplish. All too often we can get hung up on how we want to do something, instead of what we are trying to accomplish. One example of this is the idea of creating a sustainability requirement for college students. Many sustainability groups on campuses are currently making this effort and sometimes there is a lot of resistance to this effort, at other times just not enough enthusiastic support for making it happen.

What is truly important is that we expose all students to the concepts of sustainability so they can be more informed and hopefully better global citizens. One way to do that is certainly to require that each student take a course that will expose them to this idea. However, there is a more subtle way to make this happen and that is to infuse sustainability concepts into a wide array of courses, eventually even all of them. Both methods achieve the same goal but in very different ways. The first approach, the course requirement, demands that a majority of the faculty of the college support the idea through approval of at least one, but usually multiple academic committees. Additionally, you’re creating an additional course requirement for students and students are rarely happy and supportive of additional course requirements, for a good reason. It reduces the amount of freedom they have in course selection.

Using the second method, infusing sustainability concepts across the curriculum you have several advantages. First, you aren’t asking for everyone to accept it immediately, you can do it on a course by course basis and even in some cases department by department. Secondly, students are not being asked to accept any additional burden or reduce their choices when selecting their schedules. There are of course some downsides, first it will happen much more slowly. Secondly, since you will be adding these concepts into courses across disciplines there is a lot more training and support that will be needed to make it happen. Of course because of the diversity of courses you also give the students a broader concept of the relevance of sustainability.

Analyze your goals and progress. One of the most beneficial things you can do to help you be more successful in achieving your goals is to regularly analyze your progress and re-evaluate what you are doing. Be realistic, sometimes you will have uncovered unavoidable obstacles that will make you have to completely change your plans. Sometimes you’ll realize you can make things happen faster and on a larger scale than you ever imagined. Sometimes everything is exactly where you thought it would be, trust me, this will be the rare exception. Regardless, regular analysis and re-evaluation will keep you on task and heading in the right direction.


Making change permanent and sustainable.

As an effective change agent you are going to create a different environment from the one you in which you started. Expectations and standard operating procedures will change, and will create both new opportunities and problems. People’s expectations of you may change dramatically as well and you will have created new friends, allies and enemies during this process. However at the end of the day the most important and often the most difficult part of change is the ability to make it permanent.

The reason this is so difficult is that very often the change that is created is driven by the change agent and their allies. As long as these people stay in their same positions, and retain or increase the power they have, the new status quo will remain in place. However we all know that in reality this will not be the case, people move on, priorities shift, new leaders and power brokers enter the organization or emerge. External realities related to business and budgets can change dramatically over time. So how do you make the change you worked so hard for permanent, in a word, institutionalization.

Now it’s easy to think of institutionalization as meaning money, ok there is a line item in the budget for sustainability so everything is fine. Institutionalization is more broad-based than that, effectively institutionalization means taking the change away from the individual change agent and incorporating the change into the fabric of the organization or community. Yes, this means financial support but it also means a new way of doing things, that the change has been incorporated into the standard operating procedure of the organization. More than that, the change has been enculturated into the organization, in this case meaning that the culture of the organization includes making decisions within the framework of the concepts of sustainability, that sustainability has become a true core value of the organization. This will often mean new written policies and procedures, continual resources for sustainability and that the new ethos is represented in every facet of the organization and within its planning mechanisms, including but not limited to the mission, vision and cover values documents of the organization.

Of course the preceding paragraph is for the goal of making a more sustainable organization or community. If your initial goal was smaller, to say increase recycling in your organization, the same concepts all apply just on a smaller scale. You would need to make sure the culture of the organization supports recycling, that appropriate resources are available, funding, appropriate bins, an infrastructure for handling the materials. At whatever scale you’re dealing with, the primary goal is to get the change out of the hands of the change agent and into the fabric of the organization so it is no longer dependent on the efforts of any one specific individual.


What to do once you’ve succeeded

Success is a beautiful thing and often the hardest part of the process for the change agent. What you have been dedicated to is your baby, the focus of your work life, often the reason you are still doing the job you are doing. In order for this effort to be truly successful it eventually has to leave your hands and be put into the arms of the organization. At that point you lose a lot of control over the very change you created. It’s important to remember at this time what you have accomplished, but you’re not quite finished, first you have to do a bit of bragging.

Always brag about what you have accomplished. As you went along you were giving people credit, bringing them along for the ride, you made others look good so you could accomplish your goals. You were also periodically keeping them in the loop as to the progress you were making and the benefits to them and the organization or community as a whole. Now that you have achieved your goals you need to continue to do this for two important reasons. First it helps with the enculturation of the change that you made and reminds people of how far your organization has come. Secondly, it builds good will and increases your personal and hopefully your positional power so that you are in a better starting point for your next project.

Additionally, where sustainability is concerned, and I owe this thought to Debra Rowe, it is important to leverage what you have done to the next level. Take what you’ve done, and how you’ve accomplished it, and tell folks about it locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally. This effort pays dividends in so many ways as it can bring you into contact with new allies and their ideas. Most importantly it is an altruistic act toward a goal we all share when we are working towards the big goal of a more sustainable world, that of helping others do what we are trying to do. This is the very reasonable core of the idea of acting locally while thinking globally.


Celebrate and make new dreams! It is important to celebrate what you have accomplished. It may seem that this is especially true given my recommendation that you give everyone else credit for what you accomplished. Trust me, people will understand the role you played and respect you even more for the fact that you shared the credit. Also take this time to give yourself the space to dream again and those dreams will be bigger given what you have just accomplished.
Finally selfishly, you know what you did, be proud of it and treat yourself accordingly, not just at the very end of the project, but periodically as you achieve your goals. This brings us back to balance in life, and to the credo of one of my favorite musicians Webb Wilderwork hard, rock hard, sleep hard, grow big, wear glasses if you need ‘em!