How She Leads: Kathrin Winkler of EMC Corporation

How She Leads: Kathrin Winkler of EMC Corporation

How She Leads spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. This week's interviewee is Kathrin Winkler, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at EMC Corporation, where she brings together a wide variety of stakeholders across the enterprise to advance sustainable development initiatives.

EMC is a global company that enables organizations, in every industry and sector, to transform their operations and deliver Information Technology as a service. EMC's storage hardware solutions promote data recovery, improve cloud computing, and help IT departments to manage, protect and analyze information in a more agile and cost-efficient way. EMC has committed to improving its operations and becoming more transparent through setting ambitious environmental impact goals and consistently reporting on its progress. The company has been publishing an external sustainability report since 2008; its most recent report came out on June 23, 2010. This year, Corporate Responsibility Magazine ranked EMC among the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, and Corporate Secretary Magazine recognized the company for its corporate governance practices.

Maya Albanese spoke with Winkler about the path that lead her to be a successful sustainability professional in a large company, and the opportunities and challenges that she faces as a prominent leader in relatively new and rapidly-growing field.

Maya Albanese: How did you acquire this role within your company?

Kathrin Winkler: This was a brand new role the company created as more and more focus was being put on sustainability. I had been with the company for just over 8 years, starting in product management for one product line, and then taking on product management for the hardware-engineering group. It helped that as Senior Director of Product Management, I was already involved in initiatives around energy efficiency for IT and in starting the Design for the Environment program.

MA: Do you have a department or staff working on your initiatives?

KW: I have two employees that work with me in the Office of Sustainability, but I also have a virtual cross-functional team. There are many people whose job titles do not include 'sustainability' but whose jobs could be framed as sustainable development roles, such as those who are managing marketing & communications, the take-back and Design for the Environment programs, compliance for e-waste, etc.

MA: What is the most effective program you have to engage employees in your initiatives?

KW: There are two different kinds of issues here. One is when we're looking for a functional group to take on a new set of goals, and then we're very focused on planning a strategy to help that group of individuals put together a proposal and raise it within the organization. The other is when we need to broadly engage employees to improve the way they do their jobs.

For the latter, we have social media, green teams like Green Champions, and educational quizzes and online resources. But I really think the most effective strategy is to show why sustainability is relevant to things that people already value every day of their lives. While there are a good number of corporate employees who care and consider themselves good citizens, there is another group of people who haven't thought about it yet, and those are the ones we want to "ignite."

For example, we just held a competition called "EcoKids" where we had the children of our employees draw images of how to protect the environment. It helped us connect with lots of EMC employees who hadn't been engaged at all before, because they wanted to tell us about how they bonded with their kids over the drawings. Most people were surprised how their kids knew so much more about what's going on in the environment than they realized.

MA: What are some of the partnerships that play key roles in the success of sustainable development?

KW: There are a couple of key partnerships among many to highlight. All of these successful partnerships indicate how important collaboration is to advancing sustainability.

1. Ceres: We are a member company, and they have been helping us build out our stakeholder engagement program.

2. Green Grid: This is a coalition in the IT industry that is driving resource efficiency.

3. Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC): A consortium working to drive sustainability and social equity in the supply chain.

4. World Resources Institute: WRI is helping create a non-sectoral viewpoint to sustainability: How does what's being learned in one industry apply to others?

MA: One thing I admire about your company is the level of transparency with which you approach sustainability. What are the benefits and risks involved in this approach?

KW: This is not black-and-white issue; there is no algorithm for what is best to share. The risks associated with transparency are real, and you need to protect the interests of your company and customers. But at the same time, the benefits often outweigh the risks, because companies are better off voluntarily disclosing things and being open about their challenges rather than be dragged to that point.

The best approach to take is being really clear about what the data you disclose represents. Any data can be misleading unless you include the context. How was it calculated and what exactly does it mean?

The other trick is that you don't want to go too far afield by calling attention to weaknesses that are not really that material. The last thing we want is to spend a lot of time on one investment when we could be having a greater impact somewhere else. Our greatest fear is that we are going to miss what we could be doing that is great by doing too much that is simply good.

MA: What are you most proud of accomplishing in this role?

KW: I'm really proud of the level of collaboration that's occurring across departments – supply chain, manufacturing, engineering, environmental health and safety, etc. I see that they're starting to collaborate on their own to move the bar, for example on advancing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Program.

I'm proud to work for a company that's taken resource and energy efficiency across our entire product line. We've been driving it in everything, and our employees are enthusiastic and energized to make a difference. We mean what we say too – it's an incredible level of integrity.

And I must highlight the EMC Eco Kids competition again. I came up with the idea to do a competition that engaged the children of EMC employees, but our green champions thought of making it a drawing contest. When you see all these drawings from the kids, you know that they get it. They are inspiring, and it gives you hope!

MA: What advice would you give to others aspiring to be sustainability leaders within companies?

KW: I talk to people a lot about this. There are many more people who want these sustainability roles than will ever be available. What I often tell them is to develop a core expertise. You can't just come into a company saying, "I love sustainability." There are enough people within every company to be hired that care about people and environment.

So my advice is to be really good at what you do, whether its law, communications, or investor relations, and become knowledgeable about sustainability on the side of that. I am a self-taught sustainability leader. I did a lot of work in my spare time to be well versed in this field: reading up, attending conferences, volunteering, and taking courses. If you're one of those people coming up from within a company, knowing that company's network, values, and core functions well is an extremely valuable benefit to bring to this type of position.

MA: Why do you feel strongly about working for social and environmental responsibility?

KW: There are three big reasons to highlight:

1. Values: Sustainability has a lot to do with your core values. I attribute my appreciation and humility toward the natural world to my upbringing and my family's emphasis on knowledge and learning about diversity in the world.
2. Technical framework: From my work in the technology industry and engineering consulting, I've always used systems thinking to integrate each system into the next largest system. Understanding the context of the domain in which you're working is analogous to sustainability in the sense that we all need awareness of the world in which we're living and working.
3. Scuba: When I became a diver, I got much more first-hand confrontation with just how little we know about the beauty and complexity of the ecosystems around us. It's very humbling and awe-inspiring to go under water and watch fish in action. There is so much more subtlety and complexity than we can possibly grasp. I realized that we are losing these things before we can even understand them. There's so much to be lost and so much to be gained, and we have to make a conscious choose to steer in the right direction.

MA: What is the ideal scenario for the future of this discipline, and what is the best method for getting there?

KW: My ideal scenario is that we integrate the consideration of social and environmental costs into the way that we work by understanding value and quality to inherently include these factors. There may be a CSO in every company who continues to drive cross-functional initiatives like stakeholder engagement, but the company should be integrating sustainability into everything it does.

The way you get to this scenario is a combination of incremental steps and transformational change. You try to lay the groundwork and enable them through a variety of internal and external functions but main way you get there is making it a norm that enters into the community. You definitely need leadership from the top in the corporate vision, but you also need to tap in to the innovation and passion in every person in the entire employee base. So it's not an unwelcome mandate from the top down of the corporation but it's how you can do your job better and have a great impact on the planet.

We spend so much time talking about "why sustainability is important," but we shouldn't just teach our kids why it's important but more how it is essential to each function of our society on a more granular level. Everyone has a role to play in this, so the biggest strategy will be to understand what each role is.