Surviving bosses, bullets, and sustainability BS

Out of Context

Surviving bosses, bullets, and sustainability BS

[Here's the story: She's a recent MBA graduate working as a corporate sustainability consultant. He's a roaming eco-warrior dodging bullets from rhino poachers in Africa and pursuing illegal loggers in the Amazon. Whose job is more treacherous?

To find out, sneak a peek at her front-line communiqués, which have mysteriously fallen into the hands of Context America President Peter T. Knight, who has decided to share them with us. Can our earnest heroine survive in the corporate jungle with her career -- and ideals -- intact? Follow her adventures here.]

Hey Jeff,

Wow, that YouTube video of your scrape with the rhino horn poachers was really scary. AK47s! Hope you’re in one piece.

I’m saving the world by using my MBA, one client at a time. It’s not as scary as yours – all that hiding behind the baobabs – but at least my life itself is not threatened. Not yet, anyway.

I’m not sure if I’m being very effective. Take last week when we were dealing with key sustainability messages with our manufacturing client. I must admit that this was my first brush with these things called Key Messages – sets of statements they repeat ad infinitum in press releases, on their Facebook page and so on.

At first glance they look really simple – horribly full of jargon and very corporate, but simple. I thought you could dash them off in an afternoon. But you would not believe the amount of time it’s taken to write them, and rewrite them, and then rewrite them again.

My boss – he’s been at this quite a while – politely suggested that the existing messages were a bit old and could do with a rework. The Client was skeptical, probably because she knew how long it took to produce the moldy set. She got a bit annoyed when The Boss said some of the moldy messages were not true.

“Are you saying we are lying?” she demanded.

“No, but maybe you’re being a bit economical with the truth,” the boss said.

The Client wanted an example. The Boss pointed to this one: “We are passionate about reducing waste and our innovative U.S. manufacturing sites are all landfill-free.”

It turns out that the company defines that as 90 percent of their waste does not go to landfill. The Boss asked about the missing 10 percent and she said it was common practice to define it that way. She was not impressed with the argument that the stakeholders might not see it her way. I thought he was spot on.

Then we had (well they had) an exceedingly long discussion about the difference between continuous and continual improvement. The Boss said they could, at best, claim continual improvement (you know, progressive, kaizen style) but continuous (all the time) was simply impossible. The Client said she simply disagreed – it was a common term and there was no need to change it. That’s when I put my foot in it when I said I thought the phrase continuous improvement was a bit of a cliché anyway. And why use a cliché?

I expected some appreciation for my contribution but both of them looked at me with the clichéd furrowed brow. I knew The Boss agreed with me – he said so on the plane – but he clearly wanted to put me back in my box and use my impudence as leverage to get all cozy with The Client. I was the enemy now and The Client felt better.

Next Page: I am young, therefore I tweet.

I got into more hot water when I questioned the company’s authenticity. It happened because the conversation turned to social media. And you know what happens then: all the middle-aged people like The Boss look at me – the kid. The fact that I don’t know how to tweet or hardly ever update my Facebook page means zero to the oldies: I am young, therefore I tweet.

I said that repeating the key messages on the company’s Facebook page did not help because readers would find the messages inauthentic -- the kind of corporate BS that everyone expects from companies and simply ignores as nonsense.

Being the expert in the room went to my head and I got onto a roll. I said using hackneyed key messages instead of talking straight was a missed opportunity to convince people of your authenticity. All you had to do is state the facts and do it without passions, or strivings, or delivering innovative solutions globally, or saying you were on a journey to sustainability.

They looked at me, silent. But the blood was rushing. And that’s when I said that no way should they have a key message saying they defended human rights and cared for their employees when they inadvertently killed 43 employees last year.

It’s at that point, Jeff, when a nice fat baobab would have come in handy. The Boss went puce and kicked me under the table. Really hurt my shin and laddered my tights. Then he sent me out to get coffee. The Client was calm when I returned.

I had some personal takeaways from this experience. You know what I mean by a takeaway, Jeff? It’s business jargon for conclusions. I suppose your takeaway after that YouTube escapade would be: “Always assume poachers have machine guns”. My takeaway is that business sort of knows its key messages are silly, untrue and inauthentic, but no one is brave enough to talk straight. It’s a game everyone plays. Business can only talk straight when it’s in a crisis, like Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan did when they lost all those billions.

It seems it’s going to take a long time for business to understand that their sustainability stakeholders love straight talk. They like hearing about problems (a.k.a. "challenges"). But I know it’s going to be tough to get our clients to buy this. I feel my career could be a long journey of fetching coffee and hoping for a handy baobab to hide behind.

Another day, another pair of tights, another journey, another sustainability cliché.

More next month,


Image of businesswoman with crossed fingers by Kenneth Man via Shutterstock.