Listen Local, Act Global

Mike DupeeIn business, many of us try to engage in visioning exercises, brainstorming adventures, long-range planning sessions, and other lesser forms of torture to help us identify the outcomes we want to see in the world as a result of our sustainability initiatives.

The point is, if you want to be successful with a program or initiative, you’d better be really sure about the outcome you want to affect once you’ve executed.

But what if the decision about outcome isn’t wholly yours to make? Or, put another way, should it be? If you want your initiative to be successful, then it’s beneficial to step outside of “traditional” constructs and first master the art of effective listening.

We’ve applied listening skills to local Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) initiatives by asking employees in our production facilities to identify key issues in their communities based on three focus areas: Strong Local Systems, Environmental Stewardship, and Economic Prosperity. Once a specific local issue has been identified, we invite local businesses and organizations who fall into the identified categories to apply for support, typically in the forms of financial grants, volunteers, and product. When all submissions have been collected, decisions on allocating support are made by a team of employees who live, work, and have ears to the wall in that local community – ensuring that GMCR stays true to its commitment to focus where we can have the most impact, and that employees remain vested in driving beneficial outcomes. So while we offer some parameters to organize the thinking, we let local need lead.

Consider our partnership with the Pomegranate Center, a nonprofit that works to bring the creative process to community problem solving. The organization is exemplary in letting the local need lead, a construct we also clearly feel strongly about. Funded through a grant from Tully’s Coffee (a GMCR coffee brand), the building of the Alberta City Gathering Place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is a great case in point. The Alberta City Gathering Place was conceived in direct response to the devastating tornado that decimated the area in 2011. Brick by brick by brick, the residents of Tuscaloosa constructed the Gathering Place as a space where the community could come together to heal, celebrate, and connect. It was an important milestone for the rebuilding that continues in those neighborhoods.

A second example of listening to the local need can be found many miles away at the origin of our supply chain in our coffee-growing communities. By being avid listeners, GMCR and its project partners were able to really “hear” for the first time the stories of coffee farmers’ long struggle with seasonal hunger – a plight that was all but under the radar within the specialty coffee industry. These stories, as told by the farmers, informed a host of insights and actions including the production of a documentary called “After the Harvest”. This production raised awareness of food insecurity and we helped to facilitate discussion, explore potential solutions such as crop diversification, food preservation techniques and financial education. We continue to support coffee farmers in our supply-chain communities and since beginning this journey of listening and research, have broadened our scope and have touched more than 206,000 lives throughout the supply chain. This is truly a hyper-local approach with global ramifications.

Taking a ‘listen local, act global’ approach can help a company:

  • Build credibility – You are not a corporate interloper, executing a “mulch-and-run.” You are consulting the community and acting on what you hear in a way that shows respect and sensitivity for its unique perspective and experience.
  • Remove barriers and accelerate acceptance – Because you have consulted with the community, you have been more effective at identifying the barriers and working collaboratively with stakeholders to identify mutual paths to acceptance
  • Build consensus and empower advocates – They have told you what they want to do. You just need to get out of the way and let them do it!

From our experience, at GMCR we’ve learned to:

  • Build consultation into our process –We found that when it’s baked into the process the skill gets the respect it deserves. And drives the desired benefits.
  • Resist the temptation to pre-program – Opportunities to impact are lost when you’re too heavily wedded to the end game.
  • Be open – At first blush, the ideas that seem not to fit are sometimes exactly what the community needs.

I don’t expect this approach would work for every company. But I’ll let the powerful words of one Oliver Wendell Holmes remind us that above all, “It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

Are you listening?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, unless otherwise attributed, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters or the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.