UTC's Bill Sisson took its first sustainability role mile-high

ShutterstockWang An Qi

This series of articles will feature the perspectives, experiences and objectives of individuals working for member companies of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). These people carefully and successfully have navigated the interface of business and sustainability: What are the leadership skills and qualities that support this work? What motivates the people doing it? And how do they walk the potentially tenuous line between hardline business decision-making and sustainability goals? The series will explore these and other questions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Almost 15 years ago, William "Bill" Sisson was the first person at aerospace company United Technologies Corporation (UTC) to have the word "sustainability" incorporated into his title. Today, he’s the senior director of sustainability at United Technologies Research Center, the innovation engine of UTC, where he oversees implementation of UTC’s product and engineering sustainability program.

He works closely with UTC’s business units and engineering teams to design sustainable processes, including the company's lifecycle analysis capabilities. He is also often tapped to represent UTC in the context of green and energy-efficient buildings advocacy and to support the company's important and increasing global presence in green aviation and food waste reduction. With his technical expertise and deep commitment to sustainability, Bill brings a proactive and targeted lens to his work, assessing the impact of decisions and solutions while driving UTC’s sustainability leadership.

Here are some highlights from a conversation Bill and I had in September.

Emily Grady: As you think back over your career, what’s something you’re especially proud of?     

Bill Sisson:  Ten or 15 years ago, there wasn’t much awareness regarding the role of sustainability professionals at the corporate level. I am a living, breathing example of someone who was the first to be given a sustainability role from our CEO. He gave me a lot of encouragement and maneuvering room to drive our early sustainability efforts. In those days, there were many more sustainability skeptics, so I benefited from the support of senior leadership.

I started by focusing on the environmental impact of buildings, especially in relation to energy use and sustainability. I quickly established a relationship with the WBCSD, and we were among the first from the private sector to publicize and raise awareness about how buildings contribute to climate change and environmental degradation. 

We learned that buildings were responsible for upward of 40 percent of the world’s energy use, which translates into about one-third of its global carbon emissions. We worked hard to get the word out and I’m proud of that — as well as being in place to see the sustainability profession find its footing. Today, there is much greater awareness of the impact of the built environment on energy and climate as well as broader implementation within green buildings and sustainable cities.

At the corporate level, UTC made a commitment years ago to drive waste and inefficiencies out of our own products, services, buildings and operations. In line with these commitments, we have tripled the size of our business during the past 20 years and cut our energy consumption and corresponding carbon emissions by about 34 percent. Our water consumption dropped 60 percent. I’m proud of walking the talk, pushing for sustainability both internally and externally. More recently, we developed an entirely new organization within the company to focus on sustainability led by our chief sustainability officer, John Mandyck.

Grady: Despite a commitment from the top, sustainability is not easy to implement on the ground. What does it take to get your job done?

Sisson: In my primary role with the company, I often interact with many people across a diverse set of interests and there are a wide variety of priorities that exist among those interactions. Part of what keeps me up at night is, "How can I be more effective in my job?" and it always comes down to, "How can I get people to want to work together?"

"How can I get people to convene and have effective conversations?" My role, both internal and external, requires building a strategy of teamwork that cuts across silos, understanding what makes people value the roles they play, and learning why they care about the investments they make. I try to appreciate that, and then try to help them see the value of sustainability in relation to their way of thinking.

Sometimes through this process, I detect skepticism or disinterest and then we have to figure out how to move beyond that to help people work together. You really have to persevere to get people to work toward a common goal and this requires having a conviction for the cause. Finally, in all of this, there needs to be consistency in what you do. I try not to waver off the key objective I’m trying to achieve. You need to make a commitment to see it through. Those are my equations for success.

Grady: Where does that conviction come from for you? What motivates you?

Sisson: I would say two things drive me. One is personal and it’s about understanding the sustainability issues and challenges we face on earth. When I was first finding my way in sustainability, I took time to acquaint myself with the science behind climate change and environmental degradation. I thought about these issues carefully and began to make more sustainable decisions for myself. Being familiar with these issues inspired me to choose to address them head-on. The second motivator is UTC. I’ve been here for 32 years, so I’ve observed a lot of change, but I’ve also seen a lot of consistency. We focus on doing the right thing for the environment, our customers, and the people that work here. Knowing that every day I come to work for a company that is committed to sustainability and sees it as part of its success into the future is highly motivating.

Also, this topic is becoming increasingly visible to a wider audience. The investment community is placing its bets on companies that are preparing for the long term. The employees who work for us come in with a mindset of sustainability — more so today than ever before. Many of our customers are looking for products and services that can allow them to be more sustainable. It is important for us to recognize how we service these needs and to orient toward the future. This topic is huge and filled with opportunity.

Grady: Why should business take this on?

Sisson: For years, WBCSD has emphasized the perspective that business cannot survive in an unsustainable world. This is fundamentally true. As the world goes, so goes business.  But on the other hand, business has a tremendous opportunity to create products and services for a sustainable world. Companies like UTC have an advantage because we have long recognized that we have a role to play in solving the world’s problems, and we also have a business opportunity to do so.  

To be more specific, here are some examples. First: in the aviation space, our Pratt & Whitney business unit launched a product a few years back called the PurePower Geared Turbo Fan engine. To put it in perspective, in the aerospace industry, engine manufacturers would make big announcements about fuel efficiency gains of 1 to 2 percent. The geared turbo fan (GTF) engine offers a 16 percent fuel efficiency.

Plus, it reduces emissions by 50 percent and noise by 75 percent. When you take into account the impact of efficiency in fuel consumption and emissions, that’s huge. But you also need to consider the impact of noise. Significant noise reduction allows for more of the world’s population to occupy areas closer to airports — meaning you don’t have to restrict land use to the extent that we do now. So the GTF engine represents an exciting product for us and the industry overall as it relates to sustainability. It is a game-changer.

Here’s another example: Think about urbanization and how cities will grow. They will be growing vertically, so the role of elevators in moving people to specific floors in buildings will become increasingly important. A concrete example of innovation in that space is our Otis Gen2 elevator, which takes advantage of hybrid technology and uses the laws of gravity to achieve efficiency gains. As the elevator lowers, energy is harnessed in a collection system so when it goes back up we can use the stored energy. Consequently, the Gen2 is 75 percent more efficient than a conventional elevator today.

There are many sustainable products and services available and under development at UTC as we speak. The challenge is to increase market awareness of and demand for our product portfolio.  From there, it is a simple decision to make the more sustainable choice.

Grady: What is needed to help speed up innovation and overcome barriers?

Sisson: I’ll use this opportunity to highlight our work with WBCSD, as well as other non-profits and advocacy organizations. WBCSD allows us to join together with like-minded companies that have made similar commitments to sustainability. It also allows us to collaborate across sectors. We’ve spent the last 10 years working with LafargeHolcim, co-chairing the Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EEB) Initiatives within WBCSD. By working across sectors, our conversations draw on diverse perspectives and knowledge to address barriers and market failures that may inhibit innovation or investment.

With WBCSD’s EEB archetype, it has been really interesting to apply this collaboration model at the city scale, and we’ve had a number of pilot cities around the world embrace it. In the U.S., we undertook an initiative a few years ago in Houston, Texas, where we convened a group of local companies and other public and private stakeholders around energy efficiency. They came together to introduce a financing mechanism that would allow people to invest in energy efficiency and sustainability, something more innovative than an interest-bearing loan.

Through this work, Houston was one of the larger markets in Texas that introduced PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) regulation and that, in turn, has created a projected $100 million pipeline of efficiency projects over the next several years for the Houston market. We’ve sought to bring that engagement model to other cities around the world with a great degree of success — so much so that, about a year ago, we launched EEB "Amplify" as our scale-up initiative. Our goal is to take the Amplify model of local stakeholder engagement and local platform creation, with a focus on addressing local barriers, to 50 cities around the world by 2020. I’m hopeful this will be a market game-changer for future generations.