What 840 “Employees” Say about Creating Change

Summer interns with EDF Climate Corps have made many companies greener. Their experiences have lessons for long-term employees. 
Maya Fischhoff December 6, 2017
Think interns aren’t like other types of employees? Think again. Since 2008, 840 graduate students have spent a summer working on corporate environmental and sustainability projects as fellows in the EDF Climate Corps program run by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an American NGO.  

They’ve worked on everything from energy efficiency to sustainability strategy. Fellows have served in over 400 public and private organizations, including one third of Fortune 100 companies. Some fellows are in business school; others, in engineering, environmental science, and even policy programs. EDF Climate Corps is a competitive program, with only roughly 10% of applicants accepted. 

Researcher Sara Soderstrom (University of Michigan) and Todd Schifeling (Temple University) are studying EDF Climate Corps fellows for lessons about how to achieve change. The fellows’ experiences have implications for long-term employees as well, Soderstrom says. 
 
A summer doesn’t seem long enough “to see difficulties or push back,” says Soderstrom. “But with the students, we saw replicated everything we see in full-time jobs. Difficulty navigating the organization, questions around what is sustainability. I had thought, ‘We’re not going to see anyone who says they’re burnt out or doesn’t know what to do.’ Those feelings were all over the place.” 

Soderstrom and Schifeling surveyed the 125 fellows in the 2016 EDF Climate Corps cohort at the beginning, middle, and end of their experience, and examined their project scopes and eventual outcomes.” They also interviewed fellows and EDF staff, including Ellen Shenette, EDF Climate Corps manager.
 
Here, Soderstrom and Shenette offer insights into how individuals can achieve change — and how organizations can help them. Mentoring, technical expertise, and peer support provided by EDF help fellows achieve their goals; companies could provide similar support for their employees. 

Three Strategies for Change 

1. Know Your Stuff 

Technical expertise matters. The problems are tough. Shenette describes how one fellow’s difficulty in making a business case for energy management: “His organization had several financial hurdles that make it difficult for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects to get budget approval. We brainstormed, and I put him in touch with a few experts in the field. He ended up using his finance/business background to look into a green revolving fund at the company, and other creative financing mechanisms.” 

Options in the energy area are constantly changing, making optimizing challenging. Soderstrom explains: “Someone will say, ‘I know this type of lighting is bad, but what is best technology available now?’” EDF trains fellows on energy management before they start their fellowships, and gives them access to technical resources throughout the summer.  

2. Know Your Colleagues 

Numbers alone won’t carry the day. Interpersonal skills matter. “Some fellows went in thinking, ‘Design the solution and it would work,’” says Soderstrom. “That’s not enough. Others strategically used time for advice seeking, figuring out who’s who and will be supportive.” Successful fellows tried to meet a lot of people, learning who has data and where change happens. 

Once fellows identified the relevant individuals, they had to convince them. Sometimes fellows used pilot programs to build buy in, showing how an initiative would work in one factory or office building. Or, they tried to connect initiatives to existing organizational commitments, so that other employees saw a proposed change as a logical next step.  

A fellow working on energy management in a school district engaged the board president, the chief financial officer, the executive director of the facility, as well as local advocates. That kind of “stakeholder engagement” matters just as much in a corporate setting, says Shenette. “Working in a company is very similar in terms of working with different departments. Understanding how decision-making and power and work load is distributed through organizations is tricky to do in just 10 weeks, but necessary to be an All-Star.” 

3. Stay Connected to Stay Motivated 

Staying motivated is important. Motivation is a key factor in preventing burnout and helping employees involved in arduous — and sometimes thankless — work of change management.  

As an engagement manager, Shenette is part of a team coaching fellows. “We get calls around the midpoint of the program,” she says. “Fellows are really excited in the first couple weeks. They’re learning. Then they sit down to solve the problem, and realize how tough it is.”  

“People can get frustrated, burnt out,” Soderstrom says. She studied fellows whose motivation dropped in the middle of their experience. One set of fellows’ spirits continued downward: “their motivation tanked.” The others recovered. Why the difference? Soderstrom’s research shows that those who recover their motivation tap into a broader set of resources. Those resources can be inside the company: supportive colleagues. And they can be external: EDF’s technical offerings, mentoring, and collegial encouragement. 

How Companies Can Support Their Sustainability Actors  

Any employee working on sustainability issues needs reinforcement, say Soderstrom and Shenette. Soderstrom has found that employees working on sustainability crave connection. “A sense of isolation is frequent. People will say, ‘I found this one organization — I can chat once a month, or once a quarter, or visit — that gives a recharge that I need to go back and try to tell my co-workers why it’s important to think about this not just in the short-term but in a triple bottom line way. It gives me space to reaffirm my identity.” Trade groups and conferences are two ways to get this type of connection.   

EDF fellows connect with each other and program alumni through an online platform and more specific matching. “For the last two years,” says Shenette, “we put together document called ‘brainstorming buddies.’” The brainstorming groups were based on similarities in projects, locations, and industries. The fellows in New York, she recalls, “were constantly working together — on Whats App, messaging each other and asking each other questions.” Fellows identify their peers as their most useful resource. 

More System-Wide Support? 

EDF also provides valuable technical resources, such as an Excel financial model that all fellows and participating organizations can use to evaluate energy projects. Soderstrom urges companies to think about jointly developing such tools and best practices. “Are companies just along with sustainability for competitive advantage? If so, we need to keep resources internal. Or is our goal to address a huge societal issue that requires an all-hands-on-deck, solutions-sharing approach? Companies should be explicitly thinking about that.” 

Learning from a Fellowship 

Projects undertaken through EDF Climate Corps provide concrete benefits for companies. Over 90 per cent of participating companies move forward with at least one of their fellow’s recommendations just three months after the fellowship is complete.  

But EDF Climate Corps also provides broader lessons about how to bring sustainability change. Employees need technical knowledge, interpersonal awareness, and motivation to succeed. “Someone can be personally committed, trying to enact change,” says Soderstrom. “But if he or she doesn’t have the resources, success will be out of reach.”  

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