Why your green champions aren’t happy

A lack of clear objectives can kill off networks.

As I write this article, I am working with two quite different organisations, both household names, on energising their green champions network. The refrain is a familiar one: 'we set up a network, got loads of enthusiasm at first, but our meetings quickly descended into a group moaning session, people got cheesed off with a lack of progress, and most have stopped taking part. What can we do?'

The fundamental problem is that most champions’ networks are set up because, er, well, because it’s what everybody else does, rather than having a clearly defined purpose. This lack of clear objectives is the underlying ailment which brings down most networks. A minority of organisations have made their champions a success, including a number of my clients, so here are my tips to get your network back on track.

  • Realistic expectations

You cannot expect people to make change happen without the authority to do so. This may seem obvious, but I have seen voluntary champions given energy reduction targets, which is madness. How can a receptionist possibly save 10% of a site’s energy bill?

You also have to treat your champions with respect. In another organisation, I saw champions being asked to take regular meter readings. Their body language at being told this showed that this was not exactly what they thought they were signing up for.

You have to see champions as the oil in the engine of your sustainability programme rather than the engine itself. Give the targets to those with authority instead and the tedious jobs to those paid to do them – the champion’s role sits somewhere in between.

  • Clear objectives

You’ve got to set out ground rules in clear way. Explain what you want from your champions, or, better still, draw up the objectives in collaboration with them. Otherwise those with the strongest opinions will dominate and you’ll start to see the network disintegrate.

One important issue to nail down is how much support the champions should expect from the Sustainability Team. If you simply hold roundtable champions’ meetings without this clarity, you will probably leave the room with a longer to-do list than all the champions combined each time, which defeats the purpose. The objectives must make it clear that the champion’s role is to solve problems on their own initiative and only come back to the Sustainability Team when they are really stuck.

  • The right tools for the job  

If you are expecting your champions to deliver change, then it follows that they will need change management skills to do so. The most common objective of a champions’ network is for members to influence their peers in order to change behaviour. This is a really difficult task in practice and you don’t want your champions messing up and upsetting their colleagues – it will just make your job harder in the long run. 

My approach to engaging people in Sustainability is called Green Jujitsu and it works very well for green champions. Instead of trying to (metaphorically) beat people into submission, Green Jujitsu adapts its techniques to suit the strengths, habits and interests of the audience, in the same way a Jujitsu master adapts their techniques to exploit the strengths of their opponent. So, for engineers we talk engineering, for accountants we talk $/£/€, for healthcare professionals we talk health and so on. 

I like to run a Green Jujitsu workshop for champions where they explore the current culture(s) in the organisation and develop engagement techniques to work with that culture. This not only gives them some skills, it provides very useful ideas for the Sustainability Team too – at one client they got a two year action plan out of a two and a half hour session.

  • Rewards

If you are asking people to do something for nothing, you really should give them more than tea and biscuits at your meetings. Of course if you pay your champions they cease to be volunteers, but you could run a competition, either between teams of champions on different sites, or having a ‘Green Champion of the Year’ award for an individual. 

My client Interface, probably the most sustainable company in the world, has a formal qualification process for its sustainability ambassadors which gives status to those who achieve it. To qualify, individuals have to undertake extensive training including a practical project to transform something in their day job to make it Sustainable. I attended one of their European Ambassadors’ Summits and it was clear that this status was held with considerable pride. The sumptuous dinner was a bonus.

When my clients come to me with a dysfunctional network, I sit down and ask them what they are really trying to achieve with their champion’s networks. From that definition we build a plan for to enhance and sustain that network, including the skills champions will require and the management system to sustain the network. The overall aim of the champions must be to deliver much more in the way of sustainability benefits than the effort required to maintain it.



Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, facilitator and author. His company, Terra Infirma, has supported sustainability at a host of clients such as the BBC, NHS, Johnson Matthey plc, BAE Systems plc, Interface, News International and Stanley Black & Decker.

Gareth has written five books on business and sustainability, including one on Green Jujitsu, runs the Green Academy online training programme, and hosts the Ask Gareth YouTube series.

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