Tips for staying nimble as sustainability leaders
"If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done." This adage rings particularly true in the impact sector, where we know that the business of change is not easy. It requires us to constantly stretch ourselves in order to drive sustainability forward.
Technology is advancing rapidly, and the growing costs of climate change make quick action increasingly imperative. Amidst rapid change and with the health of our communities and planet at stake, how do we stay nimble as sustainability leaders? How do we sharpen ourselves in order to be successful in our work? A recent panel discussion held at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo — Staying Nimble in Your Sustainability Career — sheds light on some key influences.
Cross-sector collaboration: As organizations work to meet aggressive goals and science-based targets, acting together yields stronger results than acting alone. The rate of collaboration is increasing between local governments, nonprofits and private companies.
For example, in renewable energy, partnerships such as the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance leverage the expertise of nonprofits such as the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund along with the buying power of companies such as Procter & Gamble, Marriott and REI. "When organizations come together and aggregate their buying power, they move markets," said Elaine Hsieh, VERGE program director with GreenBiz, during the panel discussion. "Money talks."
Resilience: Cities and businesses see both financial risks from climate-related events and economic growth opportunities from preparing against those risks.Know your audience. Figure out what matters to them and then keep it simple.
The city of Boston's Climate-Ready Boston plan notes that by 2070, over 11,000 buildings and 85,000 people may be exposed to extreme flooding each year, resulting in annualized losses of $1.39 billion. To combat those risks, Boston creates projects that yield multiple benefits, such as flood barriers that also provide open recreational space or developable land.
Similarly in North Carolina, public-private collaborative Envision Charlotte has enabled Charlotte businesses to save $26 million in energy costs and reduce 57,000 tons of GHG emissions by leveraging smart data, the behavioral expertise of Duke Energy and analytics insights from University of North Carolina Charlotte — with support of a Department of Energy grant.
Re-framing the question: Corporate responsibility historically has been measured by efforts to reduce negative environmental impacts such as carbon emissions and waste. However, today leading organizations are building their strategy around a different model. "It's no longer about ‘How do we do less bad?'" said Kirk Myers, senior sustainability manager for REI. "The question is now, 'What should be better in the world as REI grows and thrives?'"
With this new compass, REI's sustainability program goes beyond just addressing the impacts of its operational footprint and it also addresses creating outdoor access for everyone, through efforts such as advocating for public lands.
So, in today’s context, how do we prepare ourselves as professionals to be successful in this work? These foundational strategies can propel us forward:
Partnerships: As change agents, our success is driven by our ability to bring people together. "It's about considering, 'What's beyond just me?'" Hsieh said. "In order to create new ways of doing things that truly change the game, we have to work with others and learn how we're interconnected with others inside and outside of the organization." Driving change means identifying how a multi-disciplinary network of players are connected and creating successful partnerships where incentives are aligned and everyone wins.
Storytelling: Because sustainability work is built on systems thinking and complex concepts, our ability to deliver a clear message is critical. Curt Radkin, senior vice president and sustainability strategist for Wells Fargo, said: "Know your audience. Figure out what matters to them and then keep it simple. Frame the concepts in a way that will be meaningful to them, knowing that it will be different for different players in the organization and you have to be ready to adapt."
Listening: Lastly, never underestimate the power of listening. Often influence is won not by a practiced pitch but by giving others the stage. Said Myers: "In working with executives, ask them, 'What does sustainability mean to you personally?' Starting a conversation this way can be somewhat surprising and unexpected, but it helps people reground in the bigger mission." In inviting others to share in this way, you’ll learn what they really believe in. And in turn, they’ll believe in you, too.
Whether you're designing one green building, piloting a new technology or revamping a large-scale global supply chain, these timeless strategies apply. Through partnerships, effective storytelling and listening, we can create the space and opportunities to be nimble in our work and to drive the change we want to see in the world.