Case Study

Solving for sustainability: how a leadership exercise became Crowdcoaching

By Jennifer Haugh, Marketing Manager

Mary Fischer is Brandeis University’s sustainability program manager, a role she’s had now for three years.

Just as with many other colleges, sustainability at Brandeis is under a tight budget, with little funding for programming outside of Mary’s time. She felt hamstrung trying to enlist the help of students without having the funds to pay them. So, when she wanted to find help for sustainability activities on campus, she wasn’t sure how to proceed.

GreenerU invited Mary to join its staff for lunch one afternoon earlier this year to take a step back and have another set of eyes take a look at her challenge at hand in something called Crowdcoaching. A Crowdcoaching session is a facilitated and timed 50-minute exercise that focuses attention on one individual’s particular hurdle. The presenter shares details of a conundrum for 10 minutes. The group then asks clarifying questions for 15 minutes. Then the presenter just listens to how the rest of the room wrestles with the problem. It’s like offloading baggage and letting other people carry it for a while.

Anyone can initiate, facilitate, and/or participate in Crowdcoaching.

The goal is to bring different perspectives to the table—because whether you’re a professor or pupil, expert or layman, your point of view can be the turning point for someone who’s genuinely stuck.

Mary’s presentation outlined some key details about Brandeis’s policies and campus culture. The group of GreenerU change management personnel, energy-efficiency engineers, and marketing staff then asked questions before discussing alternative options.

“I walked in the room saying, ‘This is a roadblock,’” Mary said to me recently. “I was looking at it one way. And then one person said, ‘You can do this without money. Focus on building the program first.’ I realized there were workarounds.”

Leadership, brunch, and a support network

This idea for a structured problem-solving workshop isn’t entirely original, I’ll admit. A couple years ago, some friends adopted a brunch-oriented format of a round-robin advising exercise. As we sipped mimosas and inhaled cinnamon rolls, each person—mostly strangers to each other—had eight minutes to seek advice from the rest of the group on whatever topic was on their minds. One woman asked for help making her bedroom less drafty. Another looked for suggestions on how to break it to her workplace that she had breast cancer.

These short sessions reminded me of a course I took on adaptive leadership, conceived by Dr. Ron Heifetz, which is based on the notion that problem-solving is the purview of the whole, not a single individual. The exercises associated with it can feel like group therapy. One of the most important takeaways was the power of multiple perspectives—and of letting others lift your burden for a little while.

Thus the combination of the adaptive leadership model and those boozy brunches has landed on something that seems to help people make progress on sticky issues. The concept has jogged a few more laps around the block since GreenerU began to offer them—at Saint Peter’s University, Brandeis University, and internally, when staff came together to evaluate an ongoing project.

“Sharing experiences with colleagues at other campuses is an efficient conduit for successful implementation,” said Saint Peter University’s Eileen Poiani, whose community of New Jersey college sustainability directors often puts their heads together to solve problems.

Friends experimenting with a Crowdcoaching-filled weekend


This problem-solving approach resonates deeply with our values at GreenerU. Our mission is to help schools tackle climate change and sustainability, and we do so through listening intently, moving the discussion forward, offering new perspectives, and empowering individuals to make thoughtful decisions.

Getting a boost from new perspectives

At Brandeis, what Mary Fischer came to discover, due in part to the discussion in GreenerU’s conference room, was that enlisting student volunteers was a matter of how to sell it. “I started thinking of it differently—not as a negative, but as a peer influencers program,” she said. “So I pitched it as a leadership opportunity.”

It worked. The initial pilot program attracted three students, who became the de facto program leaders. A month later, Mary did another shout-out. Twenty-six more students signed on. The Brandeis Sustainability Ambassadors program was born.

What Mary has found from her two Crowdcoaching sessions with GreenerU is that sometimes getting people together in an intentional, facilitated way to take on challenges can be just the boost she needed.

“I was initially hoping to get help with Brandeis’s move-out program,” she said. “Now I have students signed up to present at fall and mid-year orientation, create educational programs in residence halls, and help staff zero-waste events.”

“The new team of Ambassadors have decided on t-shirts and hemp hats,” she added. “As a show of unity.”

Feeling stuck? Interested in your own free Crowdcoaching session? GreenerU is happy to host—or come to you! Contact us at to schedule an hour with us.