5 Myths About Sustainability Executives

We've just published the 2011 GreenBiz Salary Survey and it's full of facts and figures about how well sustainability executives are compensated, the size of their budgets and teams, and the level of optimism about whether their company can make a difference. Perhaps most importantly, our second annual survey points out that sustainability can be a career.

In my role leading the GreenBiz Executive Network, our peer-to-peer membership organization of sustainability executives, I spend a lot of time with 70 or so members as well as with their counterparts from dozens of other companies. We talk in meetings (under the Chatham House Rule), on the phone, and over lunch or dinner. We talk a lot about their day-to-day activities, their need for thick skin and a soft touch and all the other attributes for success in this emerging and challenging job of leading sustainability inside large companies.

And sometimes we talk about myths. Not Greek or Roman myths, but those misperceptions about what sustainability professionals do and how change happens within their companies. I've distilled my impressions of these conversations into what I'll call the five myths about sustainability executives.

1. The Myth of CEO Buy-In. Whenever people talk about sustainability programs and their capacity for success, it is usually noted that key to success is the magic dust of CEO buy-in. Of course, this is not unique to sustainability. I spent 20 years in supply chain and the same magic dust was sought there. Everyone wants the top dog's blessing. But that blessing can come at a price. As one sustainability executive told me recently, "Once our CEO signs off on our program, he assumes that it's done." And then the pressure increases.

I'm not saying that CEO support isn't important or useful. But a CEO's buy-in doesn't immediately change things. It doesn't transform supply chains or engineering priorities, or engage stakeholders, or perform any other miracle where sustainability leaders can make a difference. In fact, many would trade their CEO's buy-in for support from the vice president of operations faster than you can say "going green." Not to mention the support of middle management and the rank and file. The most corrosive aspect of this myth is when important sustainability initiatives get stalled waiting for the CEO. If you've been asked to lead sustainability at your company, ignore the myth and build the program.

2. The Myth of Working Yourself Out of a Job. This was most recently propagated by Unilever Australia's appointment of every employee as "Head of Sustainability" (here's the press release). Employee education and engagement, which appears the real driver behind this move, are admirable goals. But if sustainability is important to your company, it needs a leader who has a full-time job being a scout, sensing what's on the horizon, understanding stakeholder concerns, building significant partnerships, seeking new business opportunities and driving organizational change.

The senior sustainability executive for one GBEN member, a global consumer products company, described his changed perspective this way. "Ten years ago, we started the [sustainability] group and thought we'd work ourselves out of a job. But we learned that could never happen as we strive to be consistent across the globe and leverage innovations throughout the company." Commenting on his role as global coordinator, he observed, "Every orchestra needs a conductor."

3. The Myth of Greenwashing. I'm not here to defend greenwashing. There's no excuse for lying or misleading. Yet NGOs and the press make so much noise about the few offenders that companies see only risk without reward for calling out their accomplishments. This results in what McDonald's Bob Langert dubbed "greenmuting," which is described in detail in Joel Makower's book "Strategies for the Green Economy." Greenmuting is Langert's term for willfully downplaying one's sustainability commitments and achievements so as not to attract criticism (you can read more about this here).

One of the big problems with greenmuting is that it causes businesses to reinvent the wheel. Executives need to see what works and what doesn't to accelerate their company's sustainability efforts. Like the rest of us, they tend to learn a lot by watching others. In the GreenBiz Executive Network, we see companies from all industries share best practices with one another in a safe environment, and we're always impressed how each company can learn from the others, even across industries. I say, the more greenshouting by businesses, the better.

4. The Myth of a Common Language. Is it green? Is it sustainability? Corporate social responsibility? Citizenship? I was an English major and I know that words count. But a common language for sustainability (or whatever you want to call it) is about as useful as getting a degree in Esperanto. Indeed, the best title for a sustainability executive might be Chief Translation Officer.

The successful CSO is able to take his or her company's vision and goals and put them into context for each part of the company. For the shop floor, that may mean lean manufacturing or Six Sigma. For finance, it's return on investment and hurdle rates. For human resources, it's recruitment and retention. You get the idea. A successful sustainability executive is able to figure out how to help each part of the organization meet its goals by applying the lens of sustainability and communicating with those functions and departments in their own language.

5. The Myth of the Sustainability MBA. Certainly, sustainability should be required in all our business schools. But a sustainability-specific MBA is not what most distinguishes a sustainability leader. The successful sustainability executives I know tend to have two important traits.

One is functional experience, whether it's product development, supply chain, operations, logistics, or a more traditional environmental, health, and safety background. But they also have something else: They are intellectual adventurers, constantly curious and comfortable challenging the status quo. They ask both "why?" and "why not?" and push to understand what comes next.

What corporations need (as identified in the recent report "Business Skills for a Changing World" from Net Impact and World Environment Center) are MBAs who understand that sustainability is not a stand-alone function within a corporation.

As IBM's Wayne Balta, Vice President of Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety, notes in the report, "It is critical for future employees to be educated in the institutional processes and systems through which sustainability is integrated into normal business operations, and to understand how their own role gets positioned for success."

In other words, they need to know how their company functions and how stuff gets done, and then bring their sustainability skills and passions to bear. It's a recipe for a successful, sustainable career.