Why sustainability execs should shun the S-word

It seems that the most effective thing sustainability executives in large companies can do is to stop talking about sustainability.

That's my takeaway from a new report, published today, by VOX Global, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting and the UC Berkeley chapter of Net Impact. The report—a jointly conducted survey of sustainability leaders at mostly large companies—aims to understand the skills, drivers, and internal collaboration strategies sustainability executives need to succeed. [Note: VOX Global provides PR services for GreenBiz Group and Ellen Weinreb is a regular columnist for GreenBiz.com.]

The group surveyed 32 corporate sustainability leaders, primarily from Fortune 100 companies, and conducted in-depth phone interviews with sustainability officers and senior executives at AT&T, DuPont, EMC, Hilton Worldwide, McDonald’s, Novelis, and Nixon Peabody, a law firm with offices throughout the northeastern United States.

The survey asked respondents to evaluate the importance of three potential drivers of sustainability leaders’ success:

  • Interpersonal skills 
  • The ability to quantify the value of an initiative
  • Subject matter expertise

Prior to taking the job, the vast majority (78 percent) said they had assumed that subject matter expertise would be the most important predictor of success. Once on the job, however, all respondents—100 percent—said interpersonal skills proved to be more critical.

It's not that being a sustainability expert doesn't matter, but sustainability leaders said they had to first sell the concept of sustainability—and sell themselves—before focusing on the content. To secure buy-in, sustainability leaders, like other senior positions, also have to balance subject matter expertise with business acumen. The ability to communicate the business case for sustainability in a language that resonates up, down and across an organization, is viewed as crucial to achieving the ultimate objectives.

All of this resonates loudly with what we see with members of the GreenBiz Executive Network (GBEN), our membership-based peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability execs from Fortune 1000 companies. At GBEN meetings, members share their trials and tribulations, as well as their victories large and small.

One of the ongoing themes is that these individuals see themselves as "chief translation officers," among their many other hats. While the profession comes with its own language of carbon footprints and sustainable consumption, these executives tell us that they need to speak the language of those they seek to influence. So, on the shop floor this means talking about "lean production" rather than "zero waste." For facilities, it’s about reducing "energy spend," not "greenhouse gas emissions."

"Executives who have seen the most success with their sustainability programs are those who understand the goals of the various business functions and use their sustainability toolbox to help them achieve those goals," says GreenBiz's John Davies, who runs GBEN. "Effective communication creates a win-win proposition.”

Next page: Sustainability execs' "three C's"

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.