30 Under 30

Beyond beanbags: How to truly engage young sustainability professionals

It has been a year since our inaugural class of GreenBiz "30 Under 30" sustainability professionals were named, an honor that I continue to be humbled by. Today, we’re adding the names and stories of the 30 more honorees and the torch will be passed.

In speaking and working with my friends at GreenBiz recently, I can’t help but think about the future. The past year has been a period of change and uncertainty for our profession, with more change on the horizon. Yet looking at the 30 Under 30, I see a steadfast resolve and can-do attitude that lends to greater hope. We are lucky to have this opportunity to identify entrepreneurs and innovators who have made a great impact on business, while still having an impressive majority of their careers ahead of them.

The 30 Under 30 are a diverse group of successful professionals, with a few qualities in common. They are young, motivated and impactful. They have a relatively new view on business — one of triple bottom lines and holistic value.

This may not be new to the readers of GreenBiz, but in the grand timeline of business operations and economics, it’s revolutionary. Some young professionals even may have received degrees in sustainability, a field that I — at the older end of the millennial generation — found scarcely available when I was an undergraduate. These honorees represent a population of professionals with a new perspective to business, and their accomplishments are indication they are eager to share their vision.

Harnessing the momentum

I believe there is a business opportunity here to harness this vision. The impact of incorporating diverse backgrounds into business has been reported on in venues from Forbes to academic journals, and is incorporated into diversity goals for many companies. In short, a robust mix of perspectives leads to well-formed solutions.

Traditionally, this has been in reference to gender and ethnic diversity. Considering the rapid changes in technology, information and culture over time — especially in the Information Age — I also suggest that age diversity is an area of opportunity for businesses who are looking to maintain a hardy and sustainable strategy.

Many writers already have addressed the standard questions around talent attraction, retention and business continuity — and the social and sustainability conscious perspective of the younger generations. What do millennials want? How do they think? How do they work? How will businesses fare when this generation composes a majority of the workforce? Over time, how do we evolve and adapt as a company? Are beanbags enough?

I would take this one step further and assert that engaging young sustainability professionals gives an enriched viewpoint to those typically considered in executive strategy discussions. Socioeconomic and environmental drivers are behind many of the large-scale shifts in market trends, both of which are topics that sustainability professionals of any age are familiar with, and which youth by and large are concerned with. Think about the sharing economy, the changing appetite for real estate, walkable communities, clean energy and the Internet of Things.

These are larger trends, but are in part tied to the demands and wants voiced by younger consumers. Any business performing market or predictive analysis on trends such as these would do well to include its own younger workers in strategy discussions.

Taking the message home

But how? It’s easy to say that a youth (and in particular young sustainability professionals’) perspective would be interesting, perhaps even helpful to consider. But how do we incorporate this effectively? This is a topic that was discussed on the main stage of the BSR 16 conference in November, and one that I briefly spoke to at the time. I have four suggestions to start our collective thought process:

1. Junior Board. This is a trend within nonprofit organizations that may translate with some success into the corporate space. In the nonprofit space, a Junior Board is a group of young professionals aligned with the organization’s goals and wanting to provide assistance. The board serves as a way for the organization to reach potential millennial communities and donors, and allows for the young professionals to give their experience and input to the organization.

In the business realm, this may not be practical. Logistically, who would be responsible for this Junior Board, and how would such a board work with or inform the Board of Directors? The same effect may be had if even a single non-voting Junior Board Advisor position is created. With the correct structure and guidelines, I can imagine an effective relationship where a qualified Junior Board Advisor may provide input to the board while gaining additional business insight.

2. Two-way mentorships. Top-town mentorship programs have been implemented in many ways and settings. One interesting aspect of living in a time of rapidly changing technology and knowledge is that seasoned professionals and new faces alike have fresh information to share. At a recent event, a business friend of mine brought up the subject of two-way mentorship programs. I quite like this idea, as it places generations together as peers looking to enrich each other’s experience — an environment out of which innovative ideas may emerge.

3. Cut some slack. The best advice I received on managing people was "Hire the right person, then get out of their way." The caliber of achievements found on the 30 Under 30 are testaments that under their own volition, young professionals will work toward something they feel strongly about. If you have an employee that you believe in and have trust in their judgment, give them the leeway to start a side project to grow the organization’s sustainability presence. Let them know they have your support, work with them to ensure the project has a strong business case and bring them along to explain their project when management asks about it.

4. Pull up a chair. The advice that I gave when put on the spot at BSR was to pull up a chair. Every executive and VP has young people in their lives — family members, acquaintances or friends. If you want to have input from a young professional, it’s as easy as picking the brains of those already in your circle of connections. I have been lucky enough to know a few CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs socially. They have been opportunistic in asking for younger perspectives on business matters over a campfire or barbeque, thoughtfully mulling over the responses and bringing the pertinent information back to their office on Monday. The easiest way to start incorporating a new perspective is to just pull up a chair and ask.