"Influence without authority." That describes the job of a sustainability leader, right? It’s axiomatic; conventional wisdom. It goes without saying — yet we say it all the time. I was looking through some old articles and interviews of mine, and yeah — I’ve said it plenty, too.
But a recent conversation with my daughter-in-law got me thinking about this differently. Just what is authority, anyway? And do chief sustainability officers really have it?
Because, folks, I think we do. Or rather we have them — because there is more than one kind of authority. Sociologist Max Weber described an oft-cited model of three types of authority. Other models I’ve seen break it down into five, 13 or even 18 types. Merriam-Webster gives four definitions.
I’d like to focus on the types of authority that matter in our jobs. (I would note that many models above include kinds of authority gained through force of personality. I daresay it is applicable to the character of some — or perhaps many — CSOs, but I’m not going to go there.)
How much of its disclosures arose from or were shaped by a decision that you and your team made?
Let’s start with the obvious, what I’ll call governing authority. By virtue of officially assigned responsibilities, someone with governing authority has the power to command others. As CSO, ours is usually limited to our direct team. But don’t underestimate the impact that our day-to-day decisions have. Whether it’s the algorithms we use and indicators we measure, the consultant we hire or the messages we send, we manage a team whose decisions have reverberations over time and space.
Step back and look at how many of your company’s actions and how much of its disclosures arose from or were shaped by a decision that you and your team made.
Our virtual teams often award us granted authority as well; that is, in recognizing when we’ve taken on a leadership role, the team looks to us as the primary direction-setter, decision-maker and/or approver of outcomes. We saw that happen when we kicked off a team on transparency reporting with legal, IT, security and several product teams.
Most obviously, the CSO is usually the authority on sustainability writ large, ESG, disclosure, governance, goal setting, materiality, stakeholder engagement and more. And along with many individuals on the team, may be an authority — the expert — on one or more specific issues or processes such as greenhouse gas accounting, e-waste, biodiversity, plastics or water. We certainly had a number of exceptional authorities scattered throughout our company to whom we turned for strategy, data and goal setting.
But wait — there’s more. We have what I call borrowed authority, when someone with broader governing authority publicly delegates responsibility, such when our CEO told his staff to get my team the data we needed.
There’s also the related inferred authority. I worked for the general counsel, a.k.a. the chief legal officer. People knew that. It’s hard to tell whether or when it had an impact, but I suspected it did when I was introduced as "Kathrin; she works for the GC" or "she’s in Legal." I wasn’t. I worked for the GC but in a separate unit called the Office of Sustainability. I didn’t milk it, but it didn’t hurt.
But most of all, we have moral authority. True, wielded bluntly, people will experience it as sanctimony. But let’s be honest: It is why most of us are in this business. Perhaps it’s better to say not that we have moral authority, but rather that our mission does. And because most of the people we encounter really do consider themselves moral beings, the most effective application of that authority is not to lecture or persuade, but to expose them to situations where they come to realize the moral imperative on their own. (In fact, that's what we were working toward with our EcoKids drawing contest, after which we were regaled with stories of how children’s responses influenced their parents’ attitudes.)
So yes, we have authority. And we use it. But maybe we need to really own it — stand up tall, take a deep breath and exercise Influence with Authority.