4 ways sustainability execs can have impact

4 ways sustainability execs can have impact

It can be frustrating. You work in a function that is critical to your company’s long-term survival but it’s hard to demonstrate an immediate pay-off.  Money spent in your discipline is a form of preventative maintenance.  Visionary companies do appreciate your role, but you often have to sell your value to senior executives who don’t quite appreciate what you do.

You’re the director of sustainability. But guess what: the sentiments expressed above are not unique to your function. They are also felt by your colleagues in corporate communications, information technology, human resources, internal audit and many other corporate departments.

Face it -- as the sustainability chief, you are a staff function and as such do compete with other disciplines for resources. So how do you break out of the crowd? To have the external impact you want, you have to make an aggressive internal case for the value you create. There are several ways to do this:

  1. Get over yourself. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s an important point. Yes, you are doing work on the side of the angels  -- but you have to follow the same annual budget process as other staff functions.   Casting your position as somehow more worthy is not a winning strategy.
  2. Earn your stripes. Managing your company’s foundation or volunteerism program are important and rewarding activities. But helping the firm in times of crisis will turn management heads. You have the ability, along with a handful of other staff functions such as government affairs and media relations, to truly see your company as the external world sees it.  This perspective has tremendous value and you should use it to your advantage. When your company faces an externally driven controversy, jump into the debate if you have something to contribute. Raise your hand and suggest creative approaches in times of crisis. It will be appreciated.
  3. Step out of your comfort zone. Going to your third sustainability conference this year might be intellectually stimulating, but shoehorning your way into the company’s sales management meeting would be a more productive use of your time in the long run.  It would advance your personal brand and also your effectiveness within your company. No matter where you work in a large enterprise, there is value in stepping out of your discipline and showing interest in the strategic value of everyone else’s work. Your ability to grasp multiple disciplines implies you have higher management potential.  After all, the best CEOs have to understand a bit of every discipline that reports to them.
  4. Frame sustainability as competitive advantage. Not all firms even buy into the notion of sustainability, so you may have to choose your battles. There are companies that have to “get it” to survive, however.  They tend to be large, publicly traded and with a consumer brand to protect. Companies with such public exposure are acutely aware of the competitive environment in which they operate.  When you recommend sustainability strategies that will enhance the company’s reputation, help it build allies or open new markets, you’re talking the CEO’s language – how to gain competitive advantage. (I have yet to meet a CEO who strives to rank third in his or her industry in anything.)  If you can frame your efforts as going one step beyond what competitors are doing, you will have half the battle won.

And this concept of competitive advantage can run from the corporate-wide perspective down to the individual career perspective.  In teaching an MBA course on corporate social responsibility, I always use a framework to help students understand the business case for sustainability. Rather than preach about the importance of corporate citizenship, I frame the social responsibility component of sustainability in terms of importance to their individual careers. I bluntly tell them that if they don’t grasp the evolving business/society interface, they are highly unlikely to make it to the C suite of a major public company.

If you work in the sustainability arena, you have a tremendous opportunity to do good.  But remember, the external social impact you can achieve will increase exponentially if you refine your ability to manage internal stakeholders.