Lessons Learned from a Different Sandbox

You might think that at 39, I’m a little old for playing in the sandbox, but six years at Covia (NYSE: CVIA) proved just the opposite. It turns out there are still lessons to be learned, especially while leading the sustainability efforts in the largest producer of industrial sand in North America.

I went to work at Fairmount Minerals in December 2013, and in August 2014, the company became Fairmount Santrol when it went public. In 2018, Fairmount Santrol merged with Unimin, another leading producer of industrial sand, to form Covia. It was a sandstorm, in more ways than one—from taking a privately-held company public, then merging with another large industrial sand producer, all while attempting to integrate sustainability into every aspect of the business in a way that was meaningful and measurable.

The years 2013 and 2014 were big for sand in North America. Sand is a critical component to our daily lives. It’s used in products from windshields to clean water to natural gas production. If you play golf in North America and hit the ball into a sand trap, it was likely Covia’s sand. Covia’s markets include customers in oil and gas, foundry, glass, water filtration, pool filtration, sports & recreation markets, and building products industries.

I learned many lessons in my time at Covia, starting with this one: don’t rule out any industry. You can be amazed at what you’ll learn when you think outside your normal playground. Here are some additional lessons learned from the ‘Sandman for Sustainability.’

You can be amazed at what you’ll learn when you think outside your normal playground.

Employees gather at Covia’s Sustainable Development / Appreciative Inquiry Summit, 2014. Image courtesy of Covia.

Create Space to Empower & Engage Employees to do the Right Thing
One of my key roles was developing a platform that enabled the passions and interests in every employee to benefit the company, their own lives, the community, and the environment. We found that cross-silo Sustainable Development (SD) teams—ten in total—served as a great way to organize and advance this engagement. SD teams focused on topics like health and wellness, innovation, safety, zero waste, energy efficiency, tree planting, sustainable value chain, best practices, environmental products and process improvements, and training, among others. Each team had volunteer leaders and varied in membership from 15 to 100 members. The teams had specific, measurable goals each year, approved by senior leaders including the CEO.

We used Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a proven, strengths-based approach to scale whole-systems change through Sustainable Development (SD) Summits in 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014. Stakeholders helped evolve the SD strategy and the 10 SD teams, empowering employees to vote with their feet to advance the topics they cared about the most.

Maintain Momentum in Down Times by Demonstrating Return
The sand market downturn of late 2014, 2015, into mid-2016 provided more learning opportunities. How do you maintain morale and engagement when the company is laying off employees and idling plants? These years were a great challenge, especially given our reduced budgets. There was still the spark of energy and creativity, however, we just had to find projects that required less up-front capital, and we did a lot more video conferencing instead of actual face-to-face meetings.

The market downturn helped keep us even more honest in demonstrating the business case for how SD Pays. We developed a task force to evaluate the tangible projects that counted as an SD project, how to account for each project, using Net Present Value (NPV), including consistent definitions of expenses to count against savings generated, and each year we tracked the value.

Tracking the tangible SD Pays was a big learning, as was tracking the intangible value. It turns out, sustainability is a great way to advance employee engagement, which leads to higher retention, higher productivity per employee, and higher present-ism, meaning, engaged employees are less absent and more productive, leading to higher profitability.

Sustainability is a great way to advance employee engagement, which leads to higher retention, higher productivity per employee, and higher present-ism, meaning, engaged employees are less absent and more productive, leading to higher profitability.

Provide Common Ground to Accelerate Integration
In 2018, when Fairmount Santrol merged with Unimin and created Covia, the merger process itself provided another learning opportunity. How do leaders take the best elements of legacy organizations to co-create a stronger path forward? It began by picking up the phone and calling my peers and new colleagues to learn about their approach. How did they historically approach employee engagement, waste reduction, energy management, water recycling, volunteering in the community, health and wellness, safety, and innovation—all those things we knew to be important to creating a truly sustainable company? We took the best from both legacy organizations and mapped a path forward, aligning key departments with SD teams, sun-setting some SD teams, and challenging everyone to demonstrate how their focus advanced SD topics that mattered the most—to the company, the employees, and the community at large.

Focus on What Matters Most
You have to know where you are going and why. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the leading platform for disclosing relevant sustainability information to stakeholders. GRI requires a materiality process every three years to ensure reporters are disclosing information on SD topics that matter most to internal and external stakeholders. Covia undertook materiality processes in 2014, 2017, and then in 2018 as a combined new company. Our CEO loved this, as did investors. It demonstrated the true commitment to sustainability. We weren’t just doing a little tree planting over here, some health and wellness over there, and a bit of energy efficiency there. Rather, everything we were doing in the sustainability space was advancing key topics, with measurable Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The annual Corporate Responsibility report disclosed information to stakeholders on both the materiality process and the topics that matter most. This process keeps a company honest, ensuring that resources are applied strategically to the highest impact topics.

You have to know where you are going and why.

One of the critical success factors here is to have the support of local sustainability staff. Plant managers and others in operations and those serving the business in HR, accounting, legal, and other support functions are stretched thin. You won’t be as effective just trying to advance sustainability topics in the margins of the responsibility of very busy people. You need to have local or regional support. We had six regional SD coordinators across North America working every day to match the talents and passions of our employees with relevant projects that advanced valued SD topics and supported our related business strategies.

A second critical success factor is to ensure that your senior management understands how this makes a material difference. You have to make the business case every day, and you have to make sure that your senior leaders understand the business case for sustainability and will articulate it publicly and frequently.

Find Your People; Sustain Yourself
Perhaps the most important lesson learned is to take care of yourself. You can’t change the world and work to advance sustainability every day in a large publicly traded company—or any organization for that matter—if you yourself aren’t sustained. You will have tough days. You will have weeks, even months, where you feel overwhelmed or discouraged.

Bill O’Brien once said, “The quality of the intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” How are you taking care of yourself? This includes exercise, eating well (for greater sustainable impact try a more plant-based diet), meditating, deepening your faith tradition, spending time in nature, yoga, going on walks, and cultivating a network of supportive friends, family, and colleagues. A flourishing YOU will help create a flourishing team, organization, community, and world. Keep going! The world needs you to be an agent of world benefit.

Editor’s Note:
One way to sustain yourself—and learn new lessons—is to join an affinity group in your company, industry, or community with like-minded professionals. One excellent place to start is with Net Impact, an organization of 140,000+ people looking to use their careers to make a positive, sustainable ‘net impact.’ Open to all, they will host their global conference October 24–26, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan, where 1500+ emerging leaders will gather to learn best practices from each other. Register here.

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