EHS Managers Must Be ‘Javelin Catchers’: Q&A with Scott Nadler

May 03, 2016

Enablon’s is the most talked about Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS), Sustainability and Risk conference series in the world. With more than five hundred EHS, Sustainability, Risk and IT professionals from the largest corporations, the Chicago-based SPF Americas conference convenes leaders from top companies for learning and peer-to-peer networking. In this interview series, SPF panelists share predictions for 2016 and beyond. Here’s how Scott Nadler, principal and founder of Nadler Strategy LLC, sees the EHS field changing in a post-Paris Agreement world.

Q: What is the greatest challenge or pain point that you’re seeing regarding EHS, Risk, Supply Chain, Sustainability or CSR?

I see two. First, safety is the rhetoric but the reality is that times are hard if you can’t adjust yourself to dramatic cost reduction (See Nadler’s white paper Managing Risks Under Stress). The greatest pain point is this uncomfortable economic situation. Companies fall into two categories: A) those in deep trouble or B) those that are afraid they could be. As the New York Times article says, “If it owns a well or a mine, it’s probably in trouble.” The same goes for any commodity business or anyone in the value chain.

The second challenge has to do with climate change. My take is that the Paris agreement was far less than is needed, but far better than expected. Post-Paris can even become an opportunity if you can connect to it. Of course, there will also be those that think, ‘Now we’ll sit back and wait for governments to tell us what to do.’ Either way, we’re going to find that it gets even harder for EHS&S managers.

Q: How so?

Commercial people are after bigger and more dramatic deals – the higher and farther they can throw the javelin, the better. But the EHS guy is in the unenviable role of being a javelin catcher. More than just getting the job done, the javelin catcher must learn to view the experience from the client’s shoes, to understand users as well as uses.

Q: How do you convince an executive to invest in an EHS or GRC software platform (or other IT tool for risk, compliance, supply chain, CSR, etc.) in these times of budgetary restrictions?

I’ve never met anyone who works for a hypothetical company, so every solution must speak to a real set of challenges and a unique set of users. There’s no silver bullet, so it falls on the EHS&S person to figure out what the risk is for their company. That’s the priority – to become an advocate inside the company, to connect up with the business and connect to strategy.

Where I’ve seen the most success is in a post-merger situation. You have two systems, the acquirer and acquiree systems. They’re probably not compatible, but as part of the post-merger integration, you might be able to spend the same money and get a better outcome.

Timing is crucial. You don’t have to be seen as the disrupter or go on the attack. Rather, look for moments when everybody is already in turmoil so that you are not creating a negative experience by raising the issue. Moments when you get to become part of the solution include:

  • Transitions. When you are new or the people around you are.
  • Transgressions. There’s nothing like a major violation, disaster or a fatality (tragic and awful as that is) to break the complacency.
  • Transactions. It might be a merger, a split or a spinoff.
  • Transformations. When they’ve hired a management consultant. Sometimes it’s brilliant, sometimes it’s disruption for disruption’s sake. Either way, consultants have a habit of shaking things up.
  • Transparency. Something makes you open the blinds and see in. Sustainability reporting does this. Another example is Walmart with its supplier scorecard.

Q: You’ve been doing this work for more than three decades. What are some insights about what users value most?

The vast majority of my colleagues and clients are technical in background and training. These folks tend to think of the analytical business case. But I spent a couple of years as ERM’s global director of client service going around the world trying to help people collaborate better as well as with clients. The goal is to put them in the role of the customer. As a supplier, they are proud of their technical expertise. They don’t really believe that the emotional stuff gets in the way of their smart clients buying value. But if you’re a customer, you damn well care about the experience.

I wanted to use “sticky” examples that would act as metaphors for the user experience. Also, we were building teams from Sao Paolo to Shanghai so I wanted to use stories with universal appeal. After doing this in dozens of sessions across very different cultures, I landed on two examples: hiring the plumber and the direct deposit of the paycheck.

Everybody has called the plumber. Who can’t relate to that? Much to my surprise, the bank experience was also universal. Almost nobody actually gets a paycheck – almost everybody does direct deposit, so it’s a technology that has leapfrogged. So let’s say that you get paid 2 times a month, 10 years, 240 times. What if you go home and your check isn’t deposited. Talk about a winning streak! They’ve got it right 239 times in a row, so you’re okay with that. Right? No! You have to get it right every single time. Don’t they have the right to expect it to work every time?

The user experience is not an either/or – outcome vs. experience. I mean, which is more important for you today, to breathe or stay hydrated? We have to get both outcome and experience right.

Q: What were some key takeaways from SPF Americas 2015? What additional insights have come to you in the months since attending the event?

As I mentioned before, there’s this perception among technical thinkers that the emotional side is for people that don’t have rigor. In fact, how we experience something emotionally is crucial. Look at SPF: dancing ballerinas and astronauts have nothing to do with the technical people behind the screens. But those aren’t dumb guys or cheap displays, so why are they doing that? They’re doing it because the experience matters.

When I used to host conferences, we would focus on creating better hallways, table discussions and peer-to-peer knowledge exchange. In addition to the presentations on stage, that’s what the Sustainable Performance Forums do extremely well – offer attendees great hallways!

Q: Fast-forward 10 years from now. When we look back at our present time, is there a specific business process that we will look back upon and say “I can’t believe we used to do it that way!”?

I could rattle off a lot that I would hope to be true. But one thing about having a career that spans four decades is that it’s tough to have hubris, to think you really can predict. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that some things are incredibly different than they used to be – so different that we take them for granted. For example, earlier in my career it might have taken several steps and weeks to set up a meeting. Now it’s an IM to say “Hey, can you talk now?” There are no secretaries making arrangements or setting up calls on different continents. When you look at the pace of change, these instances will happen everywhere.

I suspect that some things around carbon and adaptation will be taken for granted in 10 years. Also, you will walk into an office or facility and your smartphone tells you these are the hazards we’re monitoring, no fugitive emissions. Those sorts of things that are done imperfectly now will be perfected.

We may not be able to predict what will change, but we can make change work for us by focusing on:

  • Activity/productivity. You’re able to do a lot more stuff but is it more productive? For example, I could focus on Twitter all day, but LinkedIn is incredibly helpful for our business, much more so than Twitter.
  • Pull/push. In another case, my new client read a bunch of my writing on my blog, so he could pull stuff that he wanted and I didn’t have to push. The smartphone is a push. Providing my client with information about me on my blog is a pull.

Q: Any final thoughts?

Watch your language. Now that I’m concluding 20 years at ERM, I think differently about phrases like “going out on your own” and the “gig” economy. This may be how others perceive it, but I look at it as “managing my portfolio” – you assume some things are up, some things are down – just as they are with my clients. As for being on my own, part of my professional criteria is choosing who I want to work with. What can we do together? It’s the anti “going out on your own.” You actually get to be more connected.

Scott Nadler is principal and founder of Nadler Strategy LLC, providing practical strategy and sustainability consulting, facilitation and executive coaching. Mr. Nadler just completed 20 years as Partner/Technical Director at ERM.

will take place on October 4-5 in Chicago, and will bring together more than 500 EHS, Sustainability, Risk and IT professionals from the world’s largest corporations. Register today and don’t miss out on 50+ sessions and countless opportunities to network with your peers.

Sustainable Performance Forum Americas 2016 2