The 7 Attributes of Sustainability Pioneers

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The 7 Attributes of Sustainability Pioneers

In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought it fitting to reflect on pioneers of past and pioneers of present.

Remember the allure of Little House on the Prairie? Pioneer life -- aside from being rough and wholesome -- was exciting. Before anything was established and systems were developed, there was that oh-so-American sense of freedom and possibility.

While working in sustainability doesn't require the use of an outhouse, it does resemble pioneering in the most basic sense of the word -- going to new places and establishing a functioning system. Before all the framework is laid down, there is the possibility of creating an entirely new system, better than any before it.

But being a pioneer -- as we all know from Laura Ingalls Wilder -- takes courage.

As a sustainability professional, do you relate to the pioneer metaphor? If so, this article is for you. What does it take to forage into new territory, and convince your business to grow their sustainability programs?

While writing CSO Back Story, I had the opportunity to speak to several Chief Sustainability Officers about their role as pioneers. Here are seven attributes they share that could support you forge uncharted territory.

1. Who is in your caravan? Form a good team. CSOs today tend to be the first of their kind within the company. But they have created the sustainability function collaboratively with input and resources from their team, co-workers, executive support, and consultants.

2. Separate Yourself From the Program. While Little House on the Prairie helps us visualize pioneer life, I would not recommend watching reruns for inspiration. For inspiration I would turn to Survivor. What often distinguishes the Survivor winner is their ability to know when to perform for the self and when to perform for the group. I find many sustainability professionals don't make the distinction often enough. What is the difference between you and the sustainability function of that company? Can sustainability forge greater ground within your company? Can you forge greater ground?

3. Be Humble. Be prepared for the sustainability programs to take flight and grow beyond your jurisdiction. Charlene Lake, CSO of AT&T, mentioned the need to put your company before your title, and be prepared not to receive a lot of recognition. She also said that "your personal satisfaction should be tied to the progress of the company."

4. Deliver Value. Peter Graf, CSO of SAP, said, "The ability of the CSO to influence and drive sustainability is based on their ability to add value to the business." I would take Peter's point one step further. There are some things that are easier to quantify than others. It is the items that fit in the "other" category that require mastery. It isn't triple bottom line alone but delivering triple bottom line value in a manner that is accepted and embraced by senior leadership.

5. Navigate Politics. A sense of what's going on in the workplace is always valuable. Understanding office politics and who wants what can be invaluable to you, if you know how to use the information. Nudging the right people in the right direction can get you far in achieving your goals.

6. Have a Figure-It-Out Attitude. A pioneer doesn't always have someone to turn to for help, or a guidebook that tells her where she went wrong. Charlene Lake from AT&T said in CSO Back Story that the most valuable trait in a sustainability employee is being able to "figure it out," because there's not much of a framework to rely on. A certain amount of confidence and intuition is important. Lake says that sustainability executives must be able to "Recognize when a door is open and have the courage to walk through it."

7. Getting Support For Your Own Challenges. I highly recommend professional coaches for pioneers. Take some time to think about your long-term options. Talking to a professional can give you new ideas about how to promote yourself and your field. Consider doing some leadership training, either through your company or outside it. Talk to a senior HR contact about the potential of the sustainability function getting a promotion.

A sustainability professional isn't just about personal advancement; he's about advancing his cause. Find ways to improve your company sustainably, and you're likely to benefit as well.

Covered wagon photo via Shutterstock.