9 skills for success in corporate sustainability leadership

9 skills for success in corporate sustainability leadership

The following is adapted from the book Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations, by Timothy J. Mohin, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

While numerous graduate programs are popping up that offer training in sustainable business and corporate responsibility, very few people in the corporate responsibility (CR) field have these degrees. Most people working in CR positions have education and experience in some other area and have followed their passion to get to one of these jobs. After talking to several of my colleagues and thinking through my own experiences, I identified nine core skills that are important elements to success in corporate responsibility:

1. Be flexible like Gumby and curious like George

Working in CR is a lifelong learning experience that rewards the flexible and curious. Corporate responsibility touches just about every issue within the company. On a single day, you may have to field questions on your company’s human rights policy, the independence of the directors on your board, your water conservation measures, and the diversity of your workforce.

The breadth of this role can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part is being asked to represent areas you know very little about. The exhilarating aspect is learning about all of these areas. People who are naturally curious, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and are eager to take on new tasks tend to thrive in corporate responsibility roles. While you may have to spend significant time operating outside of your “comfort zone,” the upside is learning about other functions within the company and building relationships with managers across the enterprise.

If being curious does not come naturally, practice by seeking out colleagues from other organizations that have a stake in your CR program. Set up one-on-one meetings to understand their scope of responsibilities, their views about your company’s CR programs, and any areas of mutual interest.

2. Hold on to your core competency while learning new skills

Just about everyone in corporate responsibility started their careers in another field. Whether you come from a marketing background or environmental science, corporate responsibility is a big tent and there is always a way to apply your skills. The key to success is to walk the line between contributing knowledge from your core competencies, and being pigeonholed into a narrow role defined by these competencies.

Look for ways to leverage your existing skills to help the organization while simultaneously taking on other responsibilities that demand skill development. My view is that people with a technical background can learn some of the “softer” skills (e.g., communications and influencing) needed for success in CR more easily than non-technical people can come up to speed on the intricacies of fields such as environmental engineering. The flip side is that many of the people who gravitate toward technical fields may be less comfortable with the ambiguity in a CR role, and fewer of them may possess the communication and influencing skills needed for success in this profession.

While mastering new skills and behaviors in the workplace can be incredibly difficult, it can be accomplished with the appropriate time and attention. You have to be willing to take risks by working in new areas and be willing to feel vulnerable, or even fail. The keys are to have the desire to learn and grow, the humility to be less informed than others, and above all the passion for your cause.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is no other single skill as important as communication for success in corporate responsibility. Whether in written communications, in speaking to large groups, or in persuading a small group of internal stakeholders, communications skills are essential. The corporate responsibility professional is often in the position of communicating a fairly complex set of facts — for example, climate protection strategies — to emotionally charged, less-technical audiences. The ability to condense complicated topics into a relevant and cogent set of messages and present them skillfully can be the differentiator for your success in corporate responsibility.

At some point, most people working in CR will work on a corporate responsibility report. If you have ever had this experience, you know that the incoming data is from every corner of the company and authored by staff that are not necessarily creative writers. The ability to take this information and weave it into a compelling, readable report is the hallmark of a good corporate responsibility program.

If you were not born with these skills, do not despair. Communications is a trainable skill if you apply the proper focus. Personally, I dreaded speaking in public at the beginning of my career. When I recognized that this deficit was a barrier to advancement, I got some training and over time went from avoiding speeches to seeking them. Years later, I even served as an instructor for a public speaking course. Like playing the piano, you can build your communication skills through instruction and practice. Seek feedback and, combined with your own self-assessment, define the areas where you will take tangible actions to improve and practice, practice, practice!

4. Lead through influence

Since the corporate responsibility professional has responsibility to communicate about numerous programs that he or she has little authority to control, it is essential to lead through influence. To effectively influence others, the ability to grow productive professional relationships is essential. In practice, this means that the corporate responsibility manager must build relationships with staff from departments across the corporation in order to align their actions with the strategies, goals, and metrics that make up a credible, consistent program. Like communications, not everyone is born with this skill, but it can be learned.

Leading through influence means building relationships with internal stakeholders, which can be tricky. For example, if your company’s procurement vice president sees no value in auditing the supply chain for compliance to the company code of conduct, your job is to help him or her to understand why this is important and valuable. The discussion could include everything from reducing reputational risk to your company’s brand, to improving product quality, to just doing the right thing. By taking the time to understand the organization’s issues and priorities, you can adjust and tailor your proposal to fit their paradigm. Most functional group leaders are not keen on “outsiders” coming in and telling them what to do. Accept that you will not successfully influence internal stakeholders in every case, but never give up. The key to success is to demonstrate mutual value in the relationship.

The most important thing to remember is that the relationship is more important than any short-term victory. When confronted with resistance, look for incremental steps toward your goals. Solidify the relationship with recognition of your partner’s achievements in your company’s corporate responsibility communications and more progress will likely follow.

Next page: corporate jujutsu

5. Read the system

An important skill is to understand the overarching paradigm of the business and culture you work in and how it shapes corporate behavior.

The skill here is harder to define because it refers to understanding what is not being said. For example, you might have a meeting where you come away feeling fantastic about the commitment to corporate responsibility goals, but a few months later you realize that nothing has been accomplished to implement these goals. In some corporate cultures, people would rather appear to agree, when there is some unsaid reason why they do not agree. Another common example is when people sign up for one of your regular meetings on corporate responsibility, but rarely attend or appear to be checked out throughout the session.

After a few of these experiences you need to ask yourself what is really going on. While there may be no single answer, success lies in asking the question and analyzing the situation. Depending on the circumstances and the relationships, you might directly ask the person or group why they are not attending, but often you might be better served by approaching the issue through a confidant who can help you understand the situation.

Once you do understand the “system” — or the reasons behind the observed behavior — there is a range of ways to respond. Of course, all of the possible solutions (ranging from doing nothing to escalating to your management chain) depend on the situation and the relationships.

While this skill area may seem like the least defined, doing this poorly can be the most deadly to your career. If you are not able to discern the paradigm of the group or individual you are trying to influence, or if you are unable to recognize the roots of your own behavior, the outcome can be disastrous. Doing this well, on the other hand, is a catalyst for success.

6. Learn and practice “corporate jujutsu”

A common mistake that many corporate treehuggers make is to be a bit too passionate about their cause to protect people and the planet. This can come across as overzealous and might communicate a lack of understanding or commitment to other corporate imperatives. Working on social and environmental causes within a big company is a bit like corporate jujutsu. Jujutsu is a “Japanese martial art and a method of close combat for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no weapon, or only a short weapon.” While the martial arts metaphor might seem confrontational, jujutsu is an apt metaphor for this career path. It is defined as being “gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding” (Ju) and “manipulating the opponent’s force against himself rather than confronting it with one’s own force” (Jutsu).

Working in the field of corporate responsibility, you will often find that the best pathway to achieving your results is a circuitous one. There will be numerous times when you are told “no” and given a ton of reasons why your ideas or programs won’t work. A defining characteristic of corporate responsibility is working in areas where you have no authority. In this situation, you will frequently encounter resistance to your CR programs and initiatives. The essential skill here is to absorb the force of the resistance with grace (gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding) but stick with your values and find creative alternatives to continue to work with your business partners to achieve success (manipulating the opponent’s force against himself rather than confronting it with one’s own force).

7. Be entrepreneurial

Success in corporate responsibility often means finding hidden value. The notion that a company can simply contribute to charity, volunteer in the community, or reduce its environmental footprint and expect to be a leader in corporate responsibility is long dead. These days, successful corporate responsibility programs are integrated into the business, which means that corporate treehuggers must be entrepreneurial and find the most efficient and effective ways to return value to the company. While CR programs are often given a pass on the company’s ROI test, the pressure is mounting for these programs to add more value to the business.

The need to tie corporate responsibility to business value is an essential skill. Don’t assume that, because you have a job in the CR department, your company’s leaders accept the value of your role. Success depends on being able to find, assess, and prioritize initiatives that can add value to the company. This can be done from any level in the company, but requires an entrepreneurial mindset.

Marrying corporate responsibility with the profit motive is the Holy Grail for the corporate treehugger. If you can be the connector that brings the people together to develop new programs that benefit the company and the environment, you will become a superstar. The key to success in this area is to be an idea generator. Look for ways to connect the dots within a company. Look at social/environmental problems as potential business opportunities. Ask yourself, “How could we apply my company’s core competencies to help solve a social/environmental problem?” Apply business acumen to these problems and you may discover the program that differentiates your company, and you, as a leader.

Doing this well requires comprehending a couple of basic truths: First, you need to understand that ideas are cheap and implementation is expensive (another way to say this is that all ideas are great ideas until you have to pay for them). Not all ideas are winners and you need to have a thick skin to pitch ideas to decision-makers, who will often reject them out of hand. Look for the ideas with the best return on investment and, above all, keep innovating until you find the best approach.

Second, it is important to understand that strategic ideas are not the sole province of the executive suite. In fact, in many cases, good ideas bubble up from within the organization. Any person at any level can be the spark that ignites the next great corporate responsibility program. Often good ideas incubate in a “skunk works” of co-collaborators who work under the radar to flesh out the concept before going through the normal management approvals (where most ideas go to die).

8. Pay attention to detail, discipline, quality, and results

While this topic may seem like the basis of any successful program, I am continually amazed by how often these basic building blocks are ignored, especially in corporate responsibility programs. It is fun to focus on the “shiny and new” topics that are part of any corporate responsibility program. For example, it is easy to get drawn into the latest NGO “name and shame” campaign, the latest government regulation, the newest responsibility ranking list, or the flashy design of your competition’s new corporate responsibility website. But in overreacting to the hot issues of the moment, there is an opportunity cost: losing focus on the sustaining elements of your program.

An important attribute to any successful corporate responsibility program is a disciplined management system. This means that you need to understand and clearly communicate the measurable goals that your program will deliver each year and develop the business processes that will produce these results. For example, producing an annual corporate responsibility report requires that you establish public-facing goals for each program (e.g., water use reduction, workforce diversity, supply chain audits, etc.), collect the data needed from each department, and create a compelling story for the report. To succeed at this year after year, you need to be able to establish the basics: who is providing the data, who will write the story, who will review, who is providing all of the graphics and images, as well as manage the schedule and budget for the entire endeavor.

These tasks are not sexy, but doing them well is essential to running a successful corporate responsibility program. Many people underestimate the amount of tactical work involved in managing a corporate responsibility program. Like any other corporate endeavor, the people who work in these departments often have too much to do at any given time and can be stressed. Having a disciplined program, with well-understood goals, clear roles and responsibilities, and reliable business processes will reduce this stress and produce better results. A proven success strategy is to develop a “dashboard” of key performance indicators to track the performance of your program.

Again, don’t assume that, because you may be new to the company or the job, someone else must have thought through all of these processes before. Corporate responsibility is often so new that the basic management systems are not yet in place. By organizing the programs, processes, and data in a disciplined way, you can add a lot of value.

9. Above all, passion for the cause

Whether you add value by developing detailed management systems or by running an entrepreneurial skunk works, the common element for most people in corporate responsibility jobs is passion for the cause. If you look at your profession as a cause rather than a job, you will find the energy to persevere through almost any situation. Regardless of your background or skills, the common denominator for most CR professionals is a passion to do something wonderful: to help people and the planet and to leave a legacy of a career dedicated to making the world better. This may sound trite, but it is an essential element of this career path.

There are many hurdles to being a treehugger in the corporate world, and there will be many days when you might question this career choice. But ultimately, when you can connect your time and talent to something bigger than yourself, you can achieve deep and profound satisfaction in your career. The key to success as a corporate treehugger is to nurture the flames of your passion even when the inertia of company bureaucracy douses it with cold water.

Ultimately the skills and attributes described above can be applied to add value to many career paths within a company. This is a good sign, because it speaks to the integration of the corporate responsibility function into business. Rather than being a career cul-de-sac, a position in corporate responsibility cultivates skills that are applicable to a broad spectrum of career paths.

Image of businessman with superhero suit by olly via Shutterstock; earth to heart symbol by Andrei Ledzianeu via Shutterstock; photocollage by GreenBiz Group.

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