The 9 (or 10) keys to successful sustainability leadership

The following was adapted from the commencement address recently given to graduates of Furman University’s Post Graduate Diploma in Corporate Sustainability.

As the first chief sustainability officer of Owens Corning, and one of the first in the world, I’ve seen many things work really well — and many things not so well — and I’ve been fortunate to learn from generous mentors and awesome colleagues along the way.

In this spirit, I’d like to share my "top nine" observations of successful sustainability leadership, any leadership really, in hopes that all this will, in some way, be helpful as you continue your journey beyond Furman.

Since I’ll inevitably leave out "the most important one," you can round this out to a "top 10" list with your own No. 10.

1. If you’re chocolate, find your peanut butter

Whenever I’m asked, "How many people work in sustainability at Owens Corning?" I always say 16,000 — that is, everyone — and then I work hard, every day, to make that true.

You are strong, persuasive and smart, but no one can win this game alone. Discover and cultivate your allies. I’m a cyclist, and I think about this just like drafting on a bike.

When drafting, cyclists rotate through a line, taking turns riding up front (pulling) before peeling off and latching onto the back. When you draft like this, by tucking in close behind another rider, you expend far less energy, experiencing about a 30 percent reduction in wind resistance.

You may be doing just fine on your own, but when you slip into a draft line with your buds, you go faster and it takes much less energy — for everyone. This is a miraculous thing. It’s not that somebody loses so someone else can win. Everyone gets faster and everyone burns less energy.

This is what win/win collaboration feels like. And then, when you’re successful, step back and push your draft-line buds into the spotlight. You’re doing it right when folks, unrelated to the sustainability function, own and take credit for a success.

Ask yourself: Who is my peanut butter?

2. Leverage your passion. It’s your friend and foe

You likely have come to sustainability with a passion for making the world a better place. That’s awesome, and the world needs you to be inspired and driven by that passion.

At the same time, we all need to realize that others may not be similarly inspired by this same passion. To successfully move others to action, it’s great to be driven by our hearts. However, we need to lead with our heads.

Share compelling stories of bright spots — stories are very powerful — and, within those stories, "do the math." For example, in my company, we say our purpose is: "Our people and products make the world a better place." While this might sound like a tagline, for me, it’s actually a life-cycle assessment math problem.

Let’s look at a handprint/footprint "story and the math" of a typical home built in Chicago. With the energy that it takes to manufacture, transport and install our insulation in this home, you could drive a typical car across the United States —about 3,000 miles. That is a lot of energy.

Now let’s look at the energy that’s saved by that insulation over a 60-year lifetime (that’s the lifetime set in the LCA product category rules for insulation). Well, with that saved energy, you could drive that same car to the moon and back, a 478,000-mile round trip —not once, not twice, but five times.

That’s one story and one math problem describing how "our people and products make the world a better place."

I first told this story to our board many years ago and still cherish the reactions of the directors to this very day. They were hanging on every word — "not once, not twice, but five times."

Ask yourself: What engaging stories will I tell?

3. Build your personal brand — define yourself

Whenever someone shorthand-introduces me as "the sustainability guy," I always take that opportunity to add something like, "We’re all sustainability guys or gals. I just make sure we have ambitious, science-based goals, and that we have the necessary resources to exceed those goals."

The point is, don’t let others define you. Defining yourself is a purposeful and important task — it’s a real project. First, decide who you want people to see when you walk into a room and then be that person.

In my role, I have found it immensely helpful to have a personal brand of innovation, creativity, collaboration and partnership — all in pursuit of sustainability. Not a brand of "the sustainability guy."

Much like protecting your organization’s brand in the market, you need to continuously build and vehemently protect your personal brand. This can come proactively to life when you introduce yourself — and reactively to life when others mis-introduce you. You have an opportunity to, with humor perhaps, build upon what’s been said by adding your self-defined brand.

Your brand is your promise — it’s what people will expect when working with you — and it will create speed.

Ask yourself: What is my brand?

4. Be the GSD guy or gal

In my circles, having a GSD — that is, Get Stuff Done — reputation is a true term of endearment, particularly for folks in functional roles such as sustainability.

Leave every discussion — and I do mean every discussion — with the action plan that advances your agenda. We can sometimes slip into believing that we are in the recommending or consulting game. We are not.

Nothing happens — the world does not get better, customers don’t buy more, factories don’t get cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise — until we drive specific actions in pursuit of our aspirations. It’s up to us to connect the dots from strategy to ideation to evaluation to action.

For example, in our company, we have an aspiration to enable the increased penetration of wind power, but nothing actually happens until we create a new solution — perhaps a new glass fiber reinforcement that enables lighter, longer, stronger wind blades — and then drive that solution all the way through the value chain until there are real wind turbines producing real power using our new technology.

Ask yourself: Is GSD in my brand?

5. Test to learn, and learn to test

Whenever we’re embarking on something really new, perhaps a new product with unique attributes or a significantly new process, we can find ourselves endlessly debating conflicting hypotheses, seeking an aligned point of view.

I have found that "conference room consensus building" is actually your enemy. This is the death of creativity, innovation and transformational change. Find ways to get into action fast, to test and dismiss or validate your diverging hypotheses.

Happily trade off precision for speed — embrace iteration. When you "do the math," delayed action is often worse than imperfect action now (although it may "seem" less risky).

Turn these conference room disagreements into rapid hypotheses testing experiments.

Ask and answer: What do we know? What do we think we know? What don’t we know? And how can we learn faster?

Ask yourself: Am I asking the right questions?

6. Don’t give up. Do lighten up

As sustainability professionals, one of our most important roles is to drive change. Virtually everything we do never has been done before, or at least never has been done in our own organization.

In November, operations began on two large wind farms built for Owens Corning. This was the result of, at the time, the largest renewable energy deal closed by any industrial corporation in the world.

We found ourselves in great company with the big tech firms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook — pretty good company for a "small Midwest manufacturer."

Our press release, just a few simple paragraphs, never could capture the blood, sweat and tears it took to get this deal done. For two years, virtually every week we uncovered another "good reason to not do this deal." And every time we relied on our North Star — our ambitious science-based greenhouse gas targets — to pull us forward.

You know: "If you don’t do this, it won’t get done."

So, when blood pressures are running really high, it’s very helpful to find a reason to laugh.

As we worked through this deal, whenever tensions rose with our finance team, I would remind us all of that "very special day" when our "all-business" controller, typically leaning back with her arms and legs crossed, suddenly leaned forward and smiled when she realized this deal actually might generate profits.

I knew immediately that this was a special moment — one worth noting — and one worth revisiting in tough times.

It’s awesome to be an outcome-focused fanatic, with your North Star guiding you, relentlessly pulling you forward, inspiring progress despite all the tactical barriers you will encounter.

At the same time, force yourself to lighten up. Be that pressure-relief valve in those tense times. Recall pleasant, shared experiences that bring smiles.

Ask yourself: Am I fun enough to be around?

7. Be a plate spinner

As sustainability leaders, our role is quite similar to that of a plate spinner on the old variety shows.

You’ve probably seen footage of performers spinning plates atop sticks, letting each steadily rotating plate go on its own while starting another, then jumping back in just before one nearly crashes to the floor — always trying to get more and more plates spinning.

When a change we’re leading begins to take root, and that plate is spinning, get out of the way and let the organization take over. Our role is to get the next plate spinning, nurturing them all to the point of self-sustaining momentum, teaching others to keep them spinning, and getting out of the way.

Like that skilled plate spinner, we may need to jump back in from time to time to catch a wobbling plate to get it back confidently spinning again, but let the organization own the initiative as quickly as possible, even if a plate occasionally falls.

Then, go find your next plate to spin. If you have a team working for you, this becomes a particular recognition challenge. Almost always, recognition occurs in an organization once something concrete and measurable happens.

By this time, you and your team are almost always onto the next challenge.

Find ways to celebrate your plate spinners for the change they are leading. This is incredibly important work, arguably the role of your team, and it’s your job to assure that your team feels that.

Ask yourself: Am I celebrating my team’s accomplishments?

8. Delegate the fun stuff

It can be really fun to keep spinning those plates. You may find plates and sticks that you really want to hold onto. Don’t.

Find ways to delegate the things you most want to do yourself. This is how you will help grow the people around you.

If you find yourself delegating things you most don’t want to do (like picking up the broken plates), stop. No one will want to work with you, or for you.

Build the reputation — the brand, really — for delegating career-expanding, challenging work that really matters.

Ask yourself: What amazingly fun work have I delegated lately?

9. Your calendar is the best judge of your priorities

Your time is, in the end, all you have to advance what’s most important to you. Own your calendar — this is one thing you should never delegate. If you do, you’ll find yourself totally consumed with other people’s priorities.

Look closely at your last month. Look carefully at your stated objectives. Does your calendar look like the calendar of a person committed to accomplishing those objectives?

If not, are the objectives wrong or is your time allocation wrong? It’s one or the other.

My typical forward-looking calendar review goes something like this:

  • Block time out each week to advance my personal objectives. Be self-generous.
  • Be time-generous to folks who reach out to me. Don’t be rushed.
  • Take care of my body. For me, that means exercise, eat right, enjoy a little wine.
  • Ask: what do I most "not want to do that needs to get done"? Then schedule it.
  • Challenge every meeting: "Can we just pick up the phone and get this done?"
  • Schedule shaping discussions to frame complex work long before it’s baked. It’s really hard to add new ingredients once it’s baked, except maybe a little frosting.
  • Disinvite myself from meetings I don’t need to be in — "am I crucial to progress?"
  • Always go to the retirement party.
  • Always go to the funeral.

Ask yourself: Does my calendar really reflect my priorities?

In closing, I’d like to share a story from one of the most admired commencement speeches of all time. In Steve Jobs’ address at Stanford, he quoted from the final issue of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog.

This was a pre-internet publication of homesteading essentials and one that I cherished, along with Mother Earth News, in the mid-1970s, when I was a student in the Center for Resourceful Living at North Adams State College.

On the back cover of the Whole Earth Catalog’s final issue, it simply said: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

To me, that feels like the right balance of insatiable curiosity and resilient fun. So, I will wish the same for you: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

In fact, let’s call that No. 10. Yes, that’s my No. 10.