10 challenges of being the CSO

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

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