Why sustainability execs should shun the S-word

The VOX report summed this up nicely by describing the sustainability professional's three key roles:

  • Catalyst: Driving and accelerating the pace of change, particularly inside a large company, can be a slow and arduous process. Success requires knowing the company’s culture and balancing subject matter expertise with strong interpersonal skills. One has to frame and communicate the need for change within a company’s corporate culture, not despite its culture.
  • Connector: Connecting the outside world with a company in ways management will understand is another important role of a sustainability leader. Communicating the business case to integrate social and environmental issues inside a company requires someone who can translate the implications of these issues and link them to key business drivers in a way senior management will understand.
  • Collaborator: A third key to success is the ability to work inside a company where direct oversight is virtually non-existent, requiring collaboration with different business units. Success requires motivational skills that can align a social or environmental issue with the self-interests of a colleague or business unit—and an ability to communicate this alignment in a manner that inspires action.

Concluded the researchers:

To be successful, sustainability leaders must provide context for their work in the same terms as other business units and define their impact in the “lingua franca” of the business. These leaders must use communication skills to link sustainability to core business objectives. Rather than using sustainability jargon, they must use words and phrases that are consistent with a company’s culture and business strategy. They must help import, translate and embed issues from the outside world into the DNA of their companies.

Bottom line: It's not what you know, it's how you communicate it.