10 challenges of being the CSO

10 challenges of being the CSO

Leaf in pocket by Rido via Shutterstock

This week, I'm guest lecturing at an MBA class. Meeting with smart, inspiring, challenging students is one of many things I love about my job as VP and chief sustainability officer at EMC Corporation. Others include but are most definitely not limited to:

• The mission. Someone is paying me to try to make the world a better place!

• Collaborating, instead of competing with, my counterparts in peer companies. (People who have known me for years will find it hard to believe, but as fierce as I can be in pinochle, I really do not like to compete.)

• The justification for sticking my nose into all sorts of corners of the business.

• Working on teams with people all over the company and the world.

• Exposure to other industries and ideas.

• The constant learning.

• Those amazing moments of satisfaction when something changes in the way an executive talks about the core business, an employee shows pride over a process re-design, or the penny drops and the lights go on in a middle manager's eyes.

• The inspiration from the young people who join EMC and want to make a difference.

I was standing in the shower noodling about what tack I should take with the students, and I thought maybe, for a change, I would share some things I don't love quite so much about my job.

Cold calls: I'm afraid to answer my phone because I'll probably have to listen to some pitch. And that's nothing compared to my email inbox. If I were to give "only an hour of time" to each one, I quite literally could fill my entire day. Typical calls are for:

• A TV show that will air on Discovery and wants to feature EMC because we are showing such leadership (oh, yes, did we mention it's only $40,000?);

• Consulting services. There are some wonderful consultants out there. So please don't be offended when I say that I don't understand how there can be so many more people who know how to do my job than ever actually have done it.

• Some kind of energy efficiency or renewable energy service. Yes, these are important and I forward all the emails to our facilities energy team, but most haven't done their homework and are offering something that we've done, or that can't make much impact. (Speaking of not doing their homework, one determined salesman sends me email nearly weekly to try to sell me a two-factor authentication system. Apparently, he's never heard of RSA.)

• RECs and carbon offsets.

• Water filtration systems (we have one) or waste handling (got it) or carpooling software (implemented) or GHG reporting systems (done that) or any of a bunch of other things that are useful but we are not looking for right now and really don't want to listen to a pitch about.

• Every once in a while, if I don't respond, someone will call my admin and lie to her about why they're calling. Really! Why do people like that think I'll want to do business with them?

Tip: I used to answer these emails with a polite "thank you, I'll be in touch". Don't do it; it just encourages them.

Warm calls: These are tougher, because they're from people I know, or knew, or should know. And they are often way (way, way) up in the hierarchy. They want me to hear a pitch from their sister, nephew, neighbor's kid, etc. I used to concede all the time, but there are just too many. So I try to send a nice email asking for more information in electronic form and explaining that we're not looking at this service/product right now, but I'd like to hold onto the information for the future. And I do hold onto it, because lying isn't my strong suit. And yes, I do schedule some of them, too.

The most common of these, though, and most painful to have to decline, is "do you have an opening for an intern?" I just scanned my email, and on average, I get two of these every month, all year long. I wish I could take them all.

Requests for sponsorship: The good news here is that I don't have a sponsorship budget. I don't want one. I'd love to sponsor every great sustainability event, but there are far too many. I'm not convinced that the best use of our money is putting our logo on things. Yes, it's useful for our customers to know what is important to us, but our customers aren't often the primary audience for these events. And for some reason, the ones that I might really consider using some of my discretionary budget to support always seem to happen at end of quarter, when getting a sales rep's attention so we can invite customers is -- well, let's just say it's a challenge. But mostly, I try to use the majority of my budget to fulfill the mission of embedding sustainability into how we conduct business.

Image of leaf inside pocket via Rido/Shutterstock

Being called the Green Queen: This one sounds funny, but it's actually a real issue for several reasons. For a few years, I was working with a professional coach who said I needed to nip that in the bud because it undermined my authority. But I hate it even more because it belittles the role and therefore the mission. I'm not thrilled about highlighting my gender in the sobriquet either, because it reinforces some people's unfortunate impressions that, first of all, sustainability is a "soft" issue and second, that "soft" issues are the primary purview of women. Nor does use of the word green do much for me -- we've been launching a campaign to completely eradicate the use of "green" other than for light with a wavelength of some 510 nanometers.

By the way, I neither love getting teased when I wear green, nor when I do not. Yes, both happen all the time. Sigh.

Bad survey questions: We get lots of surveys from customers, analysts, self-appointed rating systems, etc. They can be excruciating, although they can also be helpful. We use Dow Jones Sustainability Index as a benchmark. CDP (formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project) really has helped us up our game. We learn about which customers care what we're doing in sustainability, and what it is they care about. But many surveys have some really annoying questions. These usually have no concept of materiality, weighting all factors equally and often with no regard for the core purpose of the business. They can also make assumptions about the "right" way to address an issue. For example, we are often docked points because we don't have a line of "green" (arrgh!) products. But whenever we find a way to reduce the negative impact or improve the positive impact of our products, we try to put it across the entire product line. Isn't that a good thing?

Unrealistic expectations: Back when I started in this role, we got dinged in an ESG report for not having a goal to completely eliminate PVCs and BFRs from our products by 2008. Why? Because we knew we couldn't do it. And neither could our peers whom the report claimed had a goal. And sure enough, they didn't. One issue was that a consumer electronics company had done this (albeit not as thoroughly as they had led us to believe), but the materials they used just did not work in enterprise electronics. But we're working together and have made substantial progress since.

We also got dinged for not having a statement on our web site committing to removal of arsenic from our products. I pointed out that we do not use arsenic in our products. They said we should list on our site all the things that are bad that we do not use. No comment.

Getting what I asked for: We all know the saying. It happens -- you ask to have sustainability included in a piece of marketing collateral, and you sometimes get back archetypal greenwashing. Head-in-hands time. But it's so easy to forget that others are not always steeped in the ethos of the sustainoscenti, and their instincts to brag are well-honed in traditional marketing. They also are showing honest-to-goodness real pride in what we've done and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the issue. Put this down as an "indirect success," as it turns out to be an opportunity to educate. Gently.

Relinquishing control: I often feel as though I have a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. When I find out about some great sustainability initiative that I wasn't part of, the little devil gets fidgety. Fortunately, the little angel tells her, "Shut up -- that's what you wanted." Sometimes she has to say it twice.

Failing: Oh, yes. There are failures. There will be, in a job that is primarily about influencing the behavior of others. I don't really think of them as failures, though, so much as successes that are taking longer to achieve than I'd hoped. There are a number of types of "delayed successes": missing goals (in 2012, we missed our energy-per-employee goal last year, hitting 36 percent but not the 40 percent we aimed for); convincing people to collect and/or disclose some data points; getting people to set or buy in to new goals (especially if they don't have line of sight to achieving them); eradicating the word "green" (have I mentioned that?).

If you've read Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow," then you know that lack of success weighs on one much more heavily than a whole pile of successes do. On the other hand, when one of these obstacles crumbles -- and they do -- it feels so good!

Not making enough of a difference: This is the biggie. We're not doing enough. Not EMC. Not the IT industry. Not American society. Not the world. Let's be really, really clear: we're not doing enough. Yet. Whether it's climate change, availability of water of the needed quality, food production, education, poverty, healthcare, economic opportunity, biodiversity ... Could we do enough? I believe so. But I also think we need some fundamental changes to our big systems, including physical infrastructure, government, financial systems and education. Do we need to do the things we're doing now? You bet! We need to change the culture and the norms. We need to buy time for disruptive innovations to take hold. We need to build bottoms up critical mass of individuals and groups of people taking action. We need leaders of all kinds to shake us up and show the way. So yes, we need to do what we're doing. But we need to do more, and this keeps me up at night.

Last, but not least, this job is not immune from the everyday annoyances of any job. You know what they are -- administrivia, jerks (hey, with 60,000 employees, one or two are bound to slip through), the occasional completely unproductive meeting, people who don't hit their deadlines, not being able to find an open conference room, panel moderators who won't shut up, crappy wifi in hotels.

Hey, I love my job. It is the job of a lifetime. But I do have a job to do, and every so often, for just a brief moment, it sucks.

Then there's a breakthrough, a new innovation, an exciting employee idea, a discussion with a brilliant colleague or an enthusiastic student hell-bent on changing the world -- and I'm off and running.

 Image of leaf inside pocket via Rido/Shutterstock

This story originally appeared on Kathrin Winkler's blog.