The sustainability consultant and the CEO

Out of Context

The sustainability consultant and the CEO

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 below — and read her previous missives here.]

Hey Jeff!

I got a call from the Boss. He was talking very quietly.

“I’m calling from the boardroom,” he whispered.

I had just walked past the boardroom and I knew there was no one in there, other than the Boss. We’re in Germany, visiting a client who makes very complicated 3D printing machines that are going to revolutionize manufacturing.

“If I’m not around later,” he said breathlessly, “go to lunch without me because Henk wants to have a word.”

Henk is the CEO. Very bright, good looking, well connected and does TED and Davos a lot. The Boss had been angling for a meeting with Henk for ages.

You’ve heard of horse whisperers and dog whisperers, Jeff? Well, the Boss is one of those sustainability consultants who fancy themselves as a CEO Whisperer. They so badly want to be part of the inner circle. But no matter how they spin it, they are more Neptune than Mercury - way out in the outer circle.

I’ve realized this when we visit client head offices. Good indicators of where you are in the corporate pecking order are:

  • The depth of the carpet pile. Senior folk like their carpets to resemble a jungle - you have to slash your way through organic Australian wool to find their desk.
  • The height and shape of the office. Yeah, corner office is still good and then you've got to be high up too so that you look down on others.
  • Wasted space. If you find yourself in a lot of empty space, maybe filled with a lonely couch with incomprehensible art hanging above, you know you’re where the power is.

Next page:  Does the CEO care about sustainability?

As long as I have known the Boss we have squeezed our way into cubicles where the nylon pile is so short you would benefit from the cushioning of a pair of Nike Jordans. Sometimes the offices are so low in the building they’re actually subterranean. No matter what the Boss and his ilk say on their LinkedIn profiles, sustainability remains a long way from the CEO’s critical areas of concern.

But that does not prevent the fantasists in our business, like the Boss, from pretending to be little Henry Kissingers with the ear of the Uber Bosses.

My phone rings again: “Henk’s expected soon -- go to lunch,” the boss urges breathlessly.

I can’t help myself and head to lunch the long way, past the boardroom. The door is slightly ajar and I peep in. The Boss is on his own, dwarfed by the ridiculously big leather chair he’s sitting in. I can’t work out what he’s doing in there. I know we’ve got to write the CEO’s message in the sustainability report, but other than that, the Boss’s calendar shows nothing about meeting Henk.

I decide to head for the cafeteria for a bit of wholesome German fare (curly kale has not made it to Dusseldorf yet).I’m at the elevator when Henk comes bustling around the corner.

“You’re from the agency,” he says.

“We’re more of a consultancy, really,” I say.

“Ja, ja, but you’re helping us with our messaging, right? I think I was supposed to see the other guy, but come let’s go eat and I can give you my key messages. That’s what you Mad Men call them, eh, key messages?”

So we walk into the cafeteria and people nod to Henk, but he gets no special treatment. I take a salad.

“You must eat real food,” says Henk, putting a plate of pork and dumplings on my tray.

He’s an engaging guy. We’re chatting away about 3D and stuff, and I realize sustainability is as important to him as the menu or the color of the chairs -- something that has to be sorted out, but really not critical to the success of his enterprise.

I can see the Boss in the distance bobbing about, not sure whether he should intrude, but clearly feeling really displeased that I’m sitting here with Henk. I’m tempted to lean over and whisper in Henk’s ear, but hold back.

But dammit Jeff, I want to be a CEO Whisperer too, so I lean forward, keeping one eye on the Boss -- and just as I can see steam starting to come out his ears, say, "Henk, let me introduce you to someone …”

Until next time,


Photo of private office provided by Evgeny Burgasov via Shutterstock.