It used to be whenever a group of sustainability professionals got together, we'd debate for a few minutes about whether our job was to work ourselves out of a job. Now, it's a question I get asked whenever I'm interviewed about my role. And I admit, my view has changed in the last 3+ years.
For a short while, I thought that's exactly what I was supposed to do. After all, my mission is to embed principles of sustainability into our strategy, our operations, and our culture. That would imply that at some point I'll be "done."
But I know better now. If "sustainability" is about deliberate decision-making to shape our future, then the only thing that would end the job would be to stop having a future. And let's not go there…
I quickly came to believe that one of the futures that we should be shaping is the future of the job itself; that our jobs should be evolving from largely operational to being more strategic, from managing well-understood risks to focusing on emerging risks, from tapping immediate opportunities to positioning for long-term shifts.
Last week, a journalist asked me to look in the rear view mirror; she wanted to know how my job had changed since I took this position in July 2008. I found myself explaining the journey in phases, and when done, realized that they were pretty consistent with the rhetoric I'd been spouting (whew!). Note that these are not strictly linear. After all, different issues, parts of the company, my own knowledge of best practices, and the rate of innovation all have their own timelines. But there is a pattern, and I've seen it with my peers as well.
The first order of business was to figure out the lay of the land. I learned about initiatives under way and completed in manufacturing (e.g., closed loop water use), facilities (e.g., recommissioning), engineering (e.g., power calculator), etc. I also had to figure out among the influencers who were the supporters, who the nay-sayers, and who the "indifferents." (And no, I'm not going to tell you which was which!)
Next was pulling together a unified view. In other words, figure out what our most material issues were, understand broad expectations for companies in the industry (and companies in general), and identify the critical gaps in current operations. For example, we had no global GHG or energy reduction goals, and no GRI report. This phase also included pulling together the advocates and influencers -- we call it the "Green Business Leadership" team at EMC.
I'd call the third phase the galvanize stage: creating action to fill the gaps. For me, it included proposing and getting buy-in for GHG & energy targets, selecting and acquiring GHG management software, authoring an updated eWaste policy, and getting involved with (or support others getting involved with) organizations that could most help us and where had the most to offer (e.g., EICC, The Green Grid, DESC). This is where we really started to focus on education, advocacy, and employee engagement by developing on-line training, engaging using social media, and finding "Green Champions" to carry the cause.
Where it really gets satisfying is creating the commitment to raising our performance. It's not just having targets, but having sustainability seen as an attribute of what we do rather than an initiative driven by a few people of passion, just as we've done with quality and customer responsiveness.
My role here has often been to "incubate" a project together with a champion within a functional group so that when it's demonstrated its value, the process can be institutionalized. One such example at EMC was the lifecycle analysis of our highest volume subsystem. I initiated and sponsored it but hardware engineering has taken over and embedded what we're learning into our engineering processes.
Of course, raising our performance has many other facets, not the least of which is helping people get comfortable with and start to appreciate the value of external stakeholder input. This year, Ceres facilitated our second multi-stakeholder forum and I was tremendously gratified by the level of engagement by EMC leadership. I knew it was a success when a Senior VP asked for a follow-up with a couple of the stakeholders because she found the feedback so constructive.
None of these phases is absolutely complete, mind you. But as sustainability gets more deeply embedded in the company, I'm spending more of my cycles providing guidance to others who are doing the measuring and the target setting; reviewing rather than writing policies; figuring out what the "post-Green Team" era looks like; thinking about the potential of Cloud Computing and Big Data to change the world; and developing techniques for the next phase of my job: Seeing Around Corners.
This article originally appeared on Kathrin Winkler's blog, and is reprinted with permission.
Businessperson photo via Shutterstock.