Skip to main content

Jeana Wirtenberg: How 9 leaders are building sustainable culture

<p>In this Bard MBA conversation, author and HR veteran Wirtenberg explains how to steer corporate culture toward sustainability.</p>

With employee engagement emerging as core to the business case for sustainability, how is culture change driving companies towards a deeper, mission-driven approach to business? Building on her 30 years experience as an HR professional, Jeana Wirtenberg's new book, "Building a Culture for Sustainability," delivers an insightful, data-driven look at how nine leading companies are transforming their internal approach to business. Wirtenberg, President and CEO of Transitioning to Green, provides concrete guidance, cautionary tales and inspiring success stories for change agents and intrapreneurs.

This Q&A is an excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held April 25 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe. The last interview was with Tom Polton of Pfizer.

Bard MBA: Could you tell us a little bit about your book and your motivation for writing it?

Wirtenberg: My book is focused on finding examples, best practices, challenges and lessons learned regarding mainstreaming and integrating sustainability into the DNA of companies in all industries and functions.

What I wanted to do was to provide a hands-on practical guide to help people successfully build a culture for sustainability in firms of all sizes, types, industries and stages: From those that may be starting their journey to sustainability, to those looking to accelerate and deepen their commitment to sustainability. After all, we are all on this journey together in terms of deepening our positive impacts on people, unleashing their talents and energy. So, I wanted to look at examples across a range of industries that were actually doing things and learn from them: from their lessons learned to their challenges, which they were quite open about.

I identified nine companies, and then I followed up with 70-plus interviews in 2012-2013, going into the companies, talking to leaders in a variety of functions including sustainability, HR, marketing, finance, supply chain, operations and others.

At the very foundation of my book is a very bold and ambitious goal, which is envisioning a sustainable world in 2050. It's a bold and aspirational vision, but I'm hopeful that we, with all of the people working on this in so many different venues around the world, can begin to reframe a business narrative and conversation to have enough ─ for all ─ forever.

Bard MBA: How do we get there?

Wirtenberg: The good news is that culture is fungible, it is changeable, but who is going to need to lead this change are the business leaders and the managers. They are going to be the ones who have to shift their own mindsets and behaviors and lead by example in order to shift everyone else's behaviors and mindsets.

Cover image of Jeana Wirtenberg's book, Building a Culture for Sustainability: People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green EconomyMore good news is that I don't think companies need to resort to command and control coercion or pressure. People already care about these issues, so what I believe is that companies need to offer the enabling environment to contribute and unleash what already resides within them.

Bard MBA: Can you talk about some of the common challenges you see that are preventing companies from reaching their full potential in terms of sustainable practices?

Wirtenberg: One of the biggest challenges is that sustainability has been siloed way too much in the CSR department, and it needs to find its way into everyone's function including marketing, finance, HR, IT, etc. So that's what I'm passionate about, and the examples in my book show how to do that. You need to create a grand vision to address that "enough ─ for all ─ forever" in 2050, build a business case, embed it in the organization's DNA, build it into everybody's performance goals in the company, and then communicate with authenticity and transparency.

All of these organizations are still learning and it's important to be disclosing areas for improvement and not be greenwashing. So finding ways to engage people through technology and collaboration, and most importantly, tying sustainability to innovation and creativity because that excites people to get into the game and fully contribute.

I also think that the notion of either/or has to be thrown out the window, you know the notion that you have to be either profitable or green or innovative. It's absurd. We have to focus on the "both/and."

Bard MBA: Specifically how can HR play a bigger role?

Wirtenberg: Taking care of our people, unleashing their talents, helping them be productive and overcoming the enormous employee engagement gap through sustainability initiatives. Companies should be working towards letting people unleash their talents to work on these problems. It solves the problem of lack of employee engagement and unhappiness, and it helps us come up with new and creative solutions while simultaneously building a flourishing future for companies and the world.

Bard MBA: Could you leave us with some thoughts about your hopes for the future of sustainability?

Wirtenberg: I think we need to define a new kind of wisdom that is emotional, social, as well as ecological. I think that we've been talking about emotional and social intelligence for a long time, but now we need to embed ecological intelligence in everyone.

My own passion is around what are the sustainability practices that can transform people from the inside out. Like mindfulness and collaboration, bringing forth caring, compassion, service and involvement. These are the human elements that are so critically needed and generally speaking have been absent in the business narrative for sustainability.

The full recording of this conversation is available. The Bard MBA's Sustainable Business Fridays conversations will resume early in the fall semester.

Image of Jeana Wirtenberg courtesy of Wirtenberg.

More on this topic