The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Kathleen Shaver, Cisco

Shaver is an expert in compliance issues, but she's most passionate about influencing the actions of colleagues who don't have 'sustainability' in their title.

Kathleen Shaver started her undergraduate degree with the idea of working on Capitol Hill.

She has the public policy credentials to prove it, including a master’s degree in environmental health science from the University of Oklahoma and a bachelor of arts in interdisciplinary studies from American University.

“When I came out of school in the late ’80s, sustainability was just emerging as a concept,” she told GreenBiz. “It was pollution prevention and environmental compliance. I came up through the public health community, started out working in law firms, and I really kind of realized that I liked what I did more than what lawyers did.”

Since that time, Shaver has held roles in both the private and public sector, including director-level positions at AlliedSignal, Honeywell and Mattel, where she was instrumental in shaping the toymaker's deforestation strategy. Two years ago, Shaver made the jump to Cisco as director of supply chain sustainability, risk management, compliance and security. Not a small job, yet she’s also taken on another important new role, as chairwoman of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition.

GreenBiz spoke with Shaver about making the leap to high tech, the two mentors who helped shape her thinking and why she’s excited about influencing Cisco employees who don’t have sustainability in their title. The discussion was edited for length and clarity.

Heather Clancy: I know this is a tough question because I always feel like most people I'm interviewing are so active they'll have big accomplishments in the future, but what do you consider your most important accomplishment during your two years at Cisco? 

Kathleen Shaver: There's a couple I would highlight. The first is what I would call strengthening the fundamentals. We have always had a strong code-of-conduct program where we've communicated our expectations to our supply chain. We have gone the next step, beyond the fundamental audit program; we're strengthening the fundamentals and building on them to move to capacity building. … 

I want to move our program so we're creating a voice for workers. We're measuring differently, or measuring more effectively, the impact of the work that we do with our suppliers. An audit gives me an opportunity to look at performance as a snapshot in time. It is a very effective tool to remediate an issue. 

But our capacity building that we're doing in addition to that allows us to engage suppliers differently at a more targeted level. I'm proud of the work we've done with a group called Labor Link [a platform of Good World Solutions]. It’s a tool we use to collect workers' sentiment or workers' feedback on very specific questions to evaluate whether the programs we’re doing were having an impact.

The other area I'm really proud of is that we've made significant progress in terms of embedding sustainability goals, activities, into the business operations of supply chains. Instead of looking at my team as where the sustainability work happens, we've pivoted to having a clear understanding that sustainability and executing on our priorities is owned by the business. It's owned by our logistics managers. It's owned by the managers who work day-to-day with our manufacturing partners.

My team's working on a goal-setting project right now as part of an employee engagement campaign we call One Good Thing, which is: What's the one good thing you as an employee and supply chain can do today to advance sustainability? And, how do you own it and become part of our extended team?

Clancy: How do you engage employees in that effort?

Shaver: One of our first activities is to engage our employees in terms of analyzing their own job and thinking about its relationship to sustainability so that they can start to formulate their own goals. So it's a top-down, bottom-up approach.

I'm working top-down with our executive supply chain team to set strategic goals. But at the same time, bottom-up, organically with those that are passionate at the junior levels.

We're saying, “Hey, you know best where the connections to sustainability are for your role. Let's explore them, and let's have you be a champion for sustainability within your team and advocate within your team for projects and opportunities to have influence.”

Clancy: What learnings from Mattel have you been able to apply at Cisco most effectively? 

Shaver: The area of stakeholder engagement and customer engagement is very similar. [An example is] my work at Mattel with the socially responsible investment community and my work with Greenpeace to negotiate a resolution to their campaign against Mattel with respect to the sourcing of paper packaging, I learned a lot from that negotiation and response to the Greenpeace campaign and those skills to work with the stakeholder community and the activist community are very applicable [at Cisco].

I think, regardless of industry, these skills certainly helped me in terms of how I listen and how I find common ground.

The other area I think [is similar]: the fundamentals of manufacturing are similar, whether it’s a chip or the printed circuit board that goes into Tickle Me Elmo that may only be an inch big; or a board that's manufactured for Cisco that may be 300 times larger and substantially more complex. The fundamentals of the worker interface between technology and the workforce in the factory are the same. The complexity of a voluntary code of conduct is similar.

Clancy: You recently were named chairwoman of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition. What should GreenBiz readers know about the organization? 

Shaver: The coalition shares a common commitment to focusing on social, environmental and ethical responsibility for the electronic supply chain. There are other trade associations in the industry, but the coalition is really dedicated around the social, environmental and ethical responsibility agenda within our supply chain.

We're more than 100 electronics companies now. I think we're greater than $3 trillion in collective revenue, and [represent] about 5.5 to 5.6 million people that are directly employed in that sector that we're trying to continually improve working conditions and opportunities for.

I think that when companies create individual codes of conduct, we end up then trying to prepare for different types of audits. My goal is really to leverage the sharing of audits, the common standards that drive consistently high performance. I'm excited about that work that we're doing. We are global, and we represent brands, contract manufacturers across the entire ecosystem. 

Clancy: What do you hope to accomplish as chairwoman? 

Shaver: One of my major objectives is to drive the effective implementation of the fifth generation of our code of conduct, which was released in April. We recognize that the code is a living document and continues to evolve. It's extremely important to ensure that we've got the right training and resources to help members implement the newest version.

Another key focus area on the operations side is continuing to drive sharing of audits so that a EICC third party-conducted audit can be utilized by several customers to drive efficiency, and then allow us to contribute those resources into capacity building and training programs. 

I'm very committed to driving the EICC leadership position on the protection of workers, the protection of human rights for the workforce. EICC has taken a very strong role on the prevention of bonded labor and human trafficking. The programs that we have are really leading-edge. We are also looking at the development of a worker grievance system for smaller members who may not have their own worker grievance program currently. 

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor? 

Shaver: I love this question. I think more people should ask it all the time, actually. For me, there are really two people. One is about content, and one is about process.

From a [content] perspective, the person I always think about is Bob Willard, who is a former IBM executive from Canada who wrote a wonderful little book called “The Sustainability Champion's Guidebook.” He coached me, and I've learned from his writing about how important it is to make sustainability real, practical, and it's got to apply to the audience.

You've got to meet people on their own terms. He's taught me how to be flexible, whether I'm talking to a finance executive or whether I'm talking to a procurement executive, or to a new hire in logistics. I have to relate sustainability to them in a practical sense, and I think that his writing has really taught me to be courageous about the content, and that sustainability is as much about your subject matter expertise as it is about being a change agent and allowing people the freedom to see a different outcome that can meet their needs.

On the process side, there's a guy named Mickey Connolly who runs a practice out of Boulder, Colorado. He just [wrote] a wonderful book called The Communication Catalyst (PDF). He's taught me about the power of conversation, and he's helped me get really clear about how I get the most out of just everyday interactions to create trust and engagement. His work on the power of finding common ground in a conversation, being able to find an intersection between what people care about, what they're concerned about, what's holding them back, has allowed me to take my sustainability ideas and have more influence and develop credibility quicker.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Shaver: I think that fundamentally, people entering the sustainability field have to be comfortable with taking risk and they have to really flex that adaptive skill set. They have to get comfortable with change. They have to get comfortable with the idea that it's a process. ... A career in sustainability could happen in a lot of fields, nowadays.

It can happen in communications. It can happen in engineering. It can happen in operations and manufacturing. [You] have to have sustainability in the title to be making a meaningful difference in being a sustainability champion and leader. The valuable mentoring work I'm doing now is most often with people that are not destined for a world in which they will be called a sustainability manager. 

The other piece of advice I would offer is to really trust your gut and use your network. One of the concepts I use with folks I mentor is that I think everybody needs three people in their lives. Those people will change over time, but everybody needs a mentor, an advocate and a navigator.

The mentor is kind of like your Yoda who knows you deeply and who can tell you where your blind spots are and can listen to you at kind of a deeper level of confidence. An advocate in your organization could be your direct supervisor, somebody within your sphere of influence who helps you extend your sphere of influence, who is an advocate for the programs, and sees the value, and recognizes that the institutions can benefit and who is essentially an advocate or your promoter. I think the mentor and the advocate are different in those respects, and it's helpful when they're different.

A navigator is somebody who is tremendously important when you're new to a culture and new to an organization. Someone who can tell you how stuff gets done. Advise you about the informal cultural norms, warn you about the landmines and gotchas that, if you can avoid, you can accelerate your progress. They're an expediter, a facilitator. I've always found that having a good navigator on your wing, especially when you're new at an organization, can really prevent the speed bumps and trips and falls.