Is there an 'I' in sustainability?

I was recently interviewed by Joel Makower for a piece in GreenBiz reflecting on my 20-plus years leading Stonyfield Farm’s sustainability efforts. Throughout the interview, I made a mental note of my repeated use of the pronoun “we.” Evidently, Joel heard it too, because he asked for clarification: “And was that you driving the sustainability innovation with the many Stonyfield firsts?”

“Well, yes,” I responded. “Early on, the ideas were largely generated by me.”

Despite the fact that it was completely true, I cringed at the thought of how boastful it sounded.

Within hours of completing the interview, I wrote Joel a clarification explaining that in the early days, most of the ideas came from my team and our wonderful consultants. Once we focused on pushing sustainability through the company, the ideas started flowing from every corner of the business. That was mostly accurate, but what I had not mentioned was that early on I was the only person on the sustainability team. And yes, I had the great fortune of working with extraordinary consultants, but I was the one who managed them and made the crucial decisions directing their work. And the truth is, I do have an eye for innovation and an even keener ability to bring innovation to fruition.

But oh, how it pains me to say those things publicly! Why am I so afraid of being recognized for these skills and for my part in the accomplishments at Stonyfield?

The risks of success

My mulling of the incident continued for days, bolstered in large part by my recent reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s exceptional book “Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead.” One of Sandberg’s thoroughly researched and well-documented arguments is that women tend to mute their accomplishments. Studies, she noted, repeatedly show that “…success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

No wonder women tend to downplay their accomplishments. For men, success is rewarded. For women, the risk of success is being labeled “difficult,” “not a team player” or “too aggressive.”

Hold on. I practically came out of the womb a feminist. In third grade, my appeal to our principal resulted in girls permanently being allowed to wear pants to school. My protests to our gym teacher in sixth grade resulted in girls actually playing softball with the boys instead of cheering for them. (My first time at bat, I hit a triple.) Could it really be that I, an unabashed feminist, was subconsciously fulfilling a gender stereotype?

Family and psychology

My pondering continued. Sorting through gender issues is confusing enough, but further muddying the waters is the fact that my brother Gary, Stonyfield’s CE-Yo, was my boss. Is it gender and role stereotyping that cause me to deflect recognition? Or is it a sibling issue that results in me taking a back seat to my big brother? Or perhaps it’s something else completely: the necessary role of the chief sustainability officer.

The goal of the sustainability professional is to integrate sustainability into the fiber of the company and into the hearts and minds of all employees. If we’re effective, we should be working ourselves out of a job, not becoming rock stars. Marketing professionals can be recognized for a killer advertising campaign; accounting, for a successful audit; and operations, for improving efficiencies. In sustainability we strive to have each department embrace and own sustainability. We push recognition for achievements out to our co-workers. Pushing recognition deep into the company is essential for building ownership and buy-in. Or is it?

Next page: Finding a balancing point

Photo credit: CC license by The U.S. Army/Flickr