Who would you expect to come top of the list of young people’s role models? Nelson Mandela? Cristiano Ronaldo? Miley Cyrus? (Parents fear the worst, voting Cyrus ‘worst celebrity role model for kids’ in a US survey.)

In fact, the most popular answer given by young people when asked was ‘my mum’, closely followed by ‘my dad’. With the whole world to choose from, young people overwhelmingly identified with those closest to them.

That’s a critical insight for anyone designing a change programme for sustainability, because it’s not just the young who do this: we all tend to listen more to people in our immediate circle, who we feel are more ‘like us’.

So, while we (rightly) look to senior management to establish the culture of an organisation by making decisions in the name of sustainability, they can only provide us with the start of the behaviour change story. For the ending, we need to seek a different kind of role model: those who are changing culture on a smaller scale in their own department, brand or country office. They may be less high profile, but they are no less important.

Researchers from Iowa State University studied employees in the supply chain division of a global retailer. They found that the employees who work hardest to achieve environmental goals are the ones who believe they matter to those around them: ‘while employees may trust the CEO, they pay closest attention to their peers and immediate manager for both information and advice’.

Their findings are consistent with my own experience. In the mid-2000s, I worked in a company in which the UK CEO was personally committed to sustainability, and who swapped his sports car for a Toyota Prius. The news spread like wildfire, and colleagues mentioned it spontaneously for a long time afterwards. But when I asked middle managers who were taking action on sustainability what had caused them to change their behaviour, they invariably cited other factors: their immediate manager’s encouragement, or an inspiring colleague who had made an interesting decision relating to sustainability. The CEO’s choice had sent a clear message, but it was only when sustainability began to infiltrate their everyday interactions that middle managers saw the need to change.

So, if you’re looking to drive a cultural shift in your organisation, what does this mean for you? Here are three lessons.

First, find the right local role models. The best champions of sustainability are those who really ‘get it’, are passionate about changing the company, and have enough power to make brave and consistent decisions. Their job is to inspire change, building their own network of contacts who can make a difference in their business area. Many companies have developed formal networks of such champions, recognising that change agents at the local level are a visible and cost-effective way of showing colleagues that sustainability is a serious proposition.

Second, relinquish some control. That’s harder than it sounds, and it often requires a change in mindset from the central sustainability team. Although tight control is often necessary during strategy development (and at other times, such as reporting), delivery is a much messier affair, with different business areas finding their own paths to sustainability. Your role is to move from being ‘the expert’ with all the answers to helping champions to find the right answers themselves.

Finally, make supporting these champions a priority. Managing a network of contacts can sometimes feel as if it’s taking up a lot of your time, and it’s certainly true that there’s no clear cut-off point for support. But if you can learn to say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests, your support will be time well spent, because you’re increasing the capacity of your change agents to influence your company’s culture – and, ultimately, to deliver your sustainability goals.

Instinctively, we all know that role models are important, if only because we’ve all found people to admire and imitate in our own lives. Now we need to recognise that some role models are better than others when it comes to triggering culture change. This can help us focus our efforts where they will have the biggest impact: providing ‘people like us’ to show that ‘the way we do things around here’ is shifting inexorably towards the sustainable.

Want to find out more about how to develop a strong, flexible network to achieve your sustainability goals? My book, Networks for Sustainability, is out now – find out more here.

This blog post was originally published in Green Futures. Image: New colleague by stavos is licensed under CC BY 2.0