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Heeding the lessons of 'sustainability vets'

What happens to all that knowledge after a corporate sustainability executive retires?

We are both part of "Sustainability Veterans," an informal group of professionals who have had leadership roles in the world of corporate sustainability and are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference. We see value in bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to support those who have picked up the mantle from us and are seeking to raise corporate ambitions and achievements.

Some of what we all have in common is a desire to help the next generation of sustainability leaders be successful. In that spirit, we hosted a vibrant roundtable at GreenBiz 20 last month to learn what questions were uppermost on their minds. Then, as a group, the Sustainability Veterans talked about how we want to pass on the lessons we learned in the trenches.

We started by asking this question of our Vets: "What do you think are the one or two most important attributes for someone to move ahead in a sustainability career?" Here’s what some of them had to say:

Deep listening and empathy: You may believe that you know exactly what your company needs to do, but do you really understand all that may be required of others? Deep listening and empathy will build trust, make the difficult work mutual and respectful, and bring together all the knowledge and experience necessary for sustainable change.

—   Bart Alexander is former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors. He consults on leading sustainable change through Alexander & Associates LLC, and climate change action through Plan C Advisors.

Selfless systems thinking: Sustainability is the ultimate team sport. Large non-traditional stakeholder "ecosystems" are needed to tackle global challenges like resource depletion, degradation and climate change. To build these "ecosystems" egos and institutional arrogance must be replaced by intellectual curiosity. Asking "What if ... " is a good place to start.

—   Mark Buckley is the former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative.

Initiative and resourcefulness: Initiative to launch multiple programs, often with little explicit direction, and the resourcefulness to maintain momentum on your sustainability goals, procurement policies, reporting, employee engagement programs and communications with little budget or staffing. 

—   Jacqueline Drumheller led Alaska Airlines’ formal sustainability program as sustainability manager and is consulting.

Leadership at every level: To succeed in a sustainability career, you must be someone who is a strong internal and external leader. Both are equally important, and this is a "leadership" role regardless of what level you are at. These roles demand courage, vision and the ability to build relationships at all levels both inside and outside the company. 

—   Cecily Joseph is the former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec and serves as chair of the Net Impact Board of Directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School.

Super collaborators. When a department head sees you coming, they should not be thinking, "I don’t like this tree hugger who’s a real pain, pushing her agenda on me." Rather, they should be enthused, thinking, "So glad she's coming. She helps me, makes things simple. I trust her."

—   Bob Langert was vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s and is editor at large for GreenBiz.

Live your values. If you want to convince others to take up sustainability actions, you need to demonstrate what a balanced life looks like. (Take your vacations!) Provide positive feedback to people and parts of your organization that are making progress. Celebrate progress as often as you can.

—   Dawn Rittenhouse was director of sustainable development for the DuPont Company from 1998 until 2019.

Have patience. Not everyone has the level of knowledge or passion that you do. Much as we would like to see overnight transformation in business practices, it rarely happens. Patience and persistence, along with a good deal of self-care, will often deliver the best outcomes.

—   Sarah Severn spent over two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike, leading strategy, stakeholder engagement and championing systems thinking and collaborative change, and is principal of Severn Consulting.

Walk a mile in their shoes. Impact at any level is created from experience, business acumen and trust established by working with, learning from and supporting others. Earn your way into the conversation and establish "street cred" by supporting your colleagues’ business objectives while identifying opportunities for meaningful impact.

—   Mark Spears retired from The Walt Disney Company after nearly 30 years, spanning a series of finance, strategic planning and sustainability roles. He serves as founder and chief strategist at common+value, a sustainability consultancy.

Irrational optimism:. To push through big ideas, you have to believe it can happen and be able to move others with your unwavering belief. There will be obstacles — you have to see past them. You also have to be super business-focused. You need to be able to demonstrate the business benefits from a strong CSR program.

— Trisa Thompson, a lawyer, is former chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies.

Listening and connecting: We need flexible creative people who can listen and understand the needs of the business and connect those needs to sustainability issues in a way that makes sustainability real for collaborators around the business.

—   Bill Weihl was Google’s green energy czar, leading climate and clean energy work, and then spent six years at Facebook as director of sustainability. In 2020, he founded ClimateVoice.

Depth and breadth: What I see from supporting sustainability professionals in advancing their career is they typically learn the hard skills (depth) at school and the soft skills (breadth) over time. Together, those two skill sets can lead to the nuisance of having "influence without authority."

—   Ellen Weinreb is a sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans.

Comfort with ambiguity: Working with diverse stakeholders, grappling with emerging issues and navigating power networks means being comfortable with ambiguity. But those you need to influence may be neither comfortable with ambiguity nor systems thinkers, so you must also be prepared to offer them a clear path forward.

—   Kathrin Winkler is former chief sustainability officer for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor at large for GreenBiz.

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