3 time corporate sustainability manager talks about the mindset needed to drive change

When you meet someone like Sarah Holloway, you regain hope that we’re headed in the right direction. 

Sarah isn’t the CEO of a major company, or hold an influential role within the government.

For much of her career, she was an in-house sustainability manager inside three different well-known corporates - the UK-based grocery store chain Tesco, leisure travel company TUI, and the fast-moving consumer goods behemoth Unilever.

In her own words, this meant she “was one person in a small team, in a big company, with some influence but little power, and my job was to deliver significant change across all our products and services, in all departments, across the whole world”. No pressure!

Sarah is like you and I… An individual who believes that organisations need to, and can be, a force for good, and who cares about doing their very best to make it happen. 

Unlike social intrapreneurs who often get a red light for their initiatives, Sarah has been in roles that had a green light.

And yet... as you very likely would predict, it often wasn't smooth sailing. 

Lucky for us though as it was the highs and lows of her own experience that led her to write the book Networks for Sustainability just after finishing her maternity leave in 2013. 


Networks for Sustainability is the book she wishes she could have bought for herself earlier in her career... insider tips on how to actually deliver a sustainability strategy that's been signed off.

She and I are on the same page here. We both want you to leap frog us and take your career further so that you can make your impact bigger than ours was. Plus we want you to have more fun doing it!

I’ve read a good chunk of Sarah’s book, and it does what it says on the tin… its a solid, practical read on how to manage changemakers throughout an organisation.  

I asked Sarah to share what she thinks are four ingredients needed to get in the optimal mindset to harness people and your network for results and impact. 

Here is what she said:

1.    Stop doing and start supporting

Sustainability managers tend to be experts and strategic thinkers – but that doesn’t help much when it came to delivery. You may be the expert on sustainability, but other people are the experts on how to deliver your sustainability goals. That means the focus is on them, not you, and your role changes – from one of doing to one of supporting. That’s what I call the ‘delivery mindset’.

2.    Cultivate respect for your network

It’s all too easy to start thinking of the people you’re working with as people who work for you – after all, they are the ones delivering your strategy. 

But the reason you need champions is because of their own expertise – they know more than you ever could about driving change in their own business area. 

That means you need to be more like an internal consultant than a manager. Consultants respect their clients for their own expertise and judge carefully when to step in and help. They also set clear boundaries for their support.

Most importantly, good consultants understand that their real job is to build the capacity of their client to solve their own problems, not to present a perfectly packaged set of solutions. 

3.    Embrace resistance

One of my favourite sayings is “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Resistance is a natural reaction to change. If you don’t experience some level of resistance from your champions (and the company in general), you’re not really changing anything.

The basic strategy for managing resistance is not to fight it, but to find out more about it. That’s the real test of your skills – not how smoothly the relationships go at all times, but how you respond when things go wrong. 

4.    Accept the limits of your influence

As a sustainability manager, you’re responsible for delivering excellent goals, targets, training and support. . . but you’re not responsible for your champions’ results. That’s a real departure for lots of corporate managers, but it’s true.

I’ve always liked the wording of the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I used it a lot when I was working in-house!

Based on your own experience, what could be a 5th ingredient?

Please share in the comments as I'm certain others would benefit from your experience, and invite your like-minded colleagues and friends to join the conversation by sharing this post with them. 

Stay tuned... I also interviewed Sarah to find out what the writing experience was like for her... she candidly shared her ups and downs, and learnings with me. If you'd like to hear them first, and find out when we launch a contest to win a copy of her book, sign up to receive updates from me right here

If you can't wait, and would like to immediately get a copy of Sarah's book Networks for Sustainability in your hot little hands, you can pick up a copy via her publisher Do Sustainability. You can also learn more about Sarah via her blog www.sarahholloway.co.uk and follow her on Twitter too. She's ace. 

Speak soon! :) Heidi