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Alice in Sustainabilityland – Part 2

March 10, 2010

Promotional poster for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland


Alice accomplishes the mission she was destined to finish. But like so many things in life, she only did so due to the people around her. This is especially true in business – you and your company won’t accomplish anything without relationships.

And it is precisely the skill of managing those relationships that is so important. Sometimes these relationships are easy to manage because they’ve developed into friendships. Other times (most of the time?) these professional contacts can be more complicated and the only thing standing in the way between you and your goals is internal politics.

Be mindful of the company you keep and keep in mind the company that you don’t keep.

In the first part of our article, we discussed what the Red and White Queen mean as it relates to sustainability & the business environment. In this part, we’re going to look at some of the other characters in the story and by analogy they teach us something about the personalities we deal with at work.

As a sustainability professional working in a company, you are inherently going to be pushing for change. Change can be good or not. But it is rare in corporate life that change is fully embraced and welcomed. You can make the “business case” the best you can, but ultimately you will find that not everyone is onboard with your initiatives. So here is a light-hearted look at some of the characters in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland:

  • BLOODHOUND BAYARD – Make no mistake, this guy is working for the evil side. But reluctantly so. In the movie, the bloodhound is forced to work for the Red Queen because they have captured his wife and “pups.” At first, he’s out to get Alice, but has a change of heart and works to undermine the Red Queen. What to do if you encounter a Bloodhound Bayard in the workplace? Be cautious – remember a dog can be your best friend or he can bite you.  Ultimately you may need this person on your side though and hopefully the Bloodhound realizes like Bayard that being forced to work for evil isn’t sustainable.
  • THE MADHATTER – This is the character Alice develops the closest relationship with in the movie and winds up risking everything to save him. Have you ever heard of the concept of an “office spouse?” It’s a term describing a very close, platonic relationship at work and the Madhatter and Alice epitomize it.  The Madhatter-type of personality can challenge you to be creative, to find your inner-self, and internal strengths. He’s fun to be around and makes the crazy world of corporate life crazy enough to make it sane. Or at least help you keep your sanity. What to do if you encounter the Madhatter at work? Embrace him! (or her)
  • THE CATERPILLAR – Have you ever had a mentor? Someone who would push you  to your best and perhaps by saying things that are counter-intuitive to get you somewhere? In the movie, the Caterpillar convinces others that Alice is not “the” Alice. This reminds me of the story a CEO once told me. He said that his mentor once told him “that he would never become CEO” as he just didn’t “have it in him.” The CEO proved the mentor wrong by taking the helm and a few years later he sold the company for several times what it was worth originally. In retrospect, the CEO realized that his mentor said what he did because he knew it would motivate him to get where he needed to be.  What to do if you work with a Caterpillar? It is probably rare that you will know you’re dealing with a Caterpillar and not just a nay-sayer until well-after the fact.  The best thing you can do is listen and take regular and honest assessments of yourself and know when to push through.
  • THE HEARTS SOLDIERS – In the movie, these were the pawns of the Red Queen who, as soon as power was transferred to the White Queen, switched their allegiance and supported the new royalty. This happens in the workforce all the time. In any company, there are too many employees who don’t give independent thought and simply limit themselves to the surviving the current company environment. What to do when working with Heart Soldiers? Don’t waste your time with them. They’re going to be resistant to change and may even put obstacles in your way. Once your sustainability programs take hold in the corporate culture or leadership, they’ll get in-line. Remember, they look for cues from higher up the food chain to make decisions for them. Use that to your advantage.
  • MARCH HARE / WHITE RABBIT – In the movie, the March Hare is working for both sides. In the business world, the White Rabbit is simply the wise project manager who deals with multiple bosses, knows what is right, and gets things done. What do when you work with a March Hare? Embrace him or her. Project managers can keep you on task and stick to doing what is (really) right for the company.
  • THE MOUSE – During the movie, the mouse doesn’t play a huge role. But at one key point in the plot, the mouse jumped up and poked another character in the eye with the mouse’s cane. This is just like the person we all know and have worked with who has little political power but can occasionally do damage by poking someone in the eye.  What to do with the Mice of your company? It might be good to keep this person close to you. Because occasionally you may need some eye-poking, but also you don’t want to let them stray too far and not know which side they’re on.
  • CHESHIRE THE CAT – This character is mischievous and untrustworthy. He eventually comes through for the good side by the end of the movie but there was some doubt about his bravery from past experiences. In the workplace, this is the consummate gossiper.  He’s always around, always up to something, always has the latest info (even if it’s not true). What to do? Stay away. One of the worst things you can do in your career is care more about gossip than your job. And when push comes to shove, you can’t trust the Cheshire’s of the world to have a spine to stand up for what is right.
  • KNAVE OF HEARTS – this was the Red Queen’s BFF.  However, he turns his back on her by the end of the movie as he was more in-love with her power, money, and influence than he was her. Same thing in corporate politics. This would be the CEO’s BFF. The one who the CEO goes to because he doesn’t trust anyone else. What to do? Approach with caution. It really depends on who your Knave of Hearts is. If he/she is working for a Red Queen or a White Queen.  But beware, one of the things that motivates this person is his/her proximity to the upper-status of being so close to the CEO.
  • TWEEDLEDUM & TWEEDLEDEE – I’ve seen too many of these gentlemen in the workforce. In fact, I ran into a pair at a networking reception just the other day. These are the guys that are a good source of entertainment, mainly because they’re so odd. In all honesty, no one seems to know what their job is, but they’re always around and together. If there’s a free lunch offered for a seminar – they’re there. What to do? Find the humor in observing them from afar. If they work for you however, you better make sure that they aren’t just at work for the free sandwiches and that they actually get work done.


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