Is there an 'I' in sustainability?

Is there an 'I' in sustainability?

CC license by The U.S. Army/Flickr

I was recently interviewed by Joel Makower for a piece in GreenBiz reflecting on my 20-plus years leading Stonyfield Farm’s sustainability efforts. Throughout the interview, I made a mental note of my repeated use of the pronoun “we.” Evidently, Joel heard it too, because he asked for clarification: “And was that you driving the sustainability innovation with the many Stonyfield firsts?”

“Well, yes,” I responded. “Early on, the ideas were largely generated by me.”

Despite the fact that it was completely true, I cringed at the thought of how boastful it sounded.

Within hours of completing the interview, I wrote Joel a clarification explaining that in the early days, most of the ideas came from my team and our wonderful consultants. Once we focused on pushing sustainability through the company, the ideas started flowing from every corner of the business. That was mostly accurate, but what I had not mentioned was that early on I was the only person on the sustainability team. And yes, I had the great fortune of working with extraordinary consultants, but I was the one who managed them and made the crucial decisions directing their work. And the truth is, I do have an eye for innovation and an even keener ability to bring innovation to fruition.

But oh, how it pains me to say those things publicly! Why am I so afraid of being recognized for these skills and for my part in the accomplishments at Stonyfield?

The risks of success

My mulling of the incident continued for days, bolstered in large part by my recent reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s exceptional book “Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead.” One of Sandberg’s thoroughly researched and well-documented arguments is that women tend to mute their accomplishments. Studies, she noted, repeatedly show that “…success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

No wonder women tend to downplay their accomplishments. For men, success is rewarded. For women, the risk of success is being labeled “difficult,” “not a team player” or “too aggressive.”

Hold on. I practically came out of the womb a feminist. In third grade, my appeal to our principal resulted in girls permanently being allowed to wear pants to school. My protests to our gym teacher in sixth grade resulted in girls actually playing softball with the boys instead of cheering for them. (My first time at bat, I hit a triple.) Could it really be that I, an unabashed feminist, was subconsciously fulfilling a gender stereotype?

Family and psychology

My pondering continued. Sorting through gender issues is confusing enough, but further muddying the waters is the fact that my brother Gary, Stonyfield’s CE-Yo, was my boss. Is it gender and role stereotyping that cause me to deflect recognition? Or is it a sibling issue that results in me taking a back seat to my big brother? Or perhaps it’s something else completely: the necessary role of the chief sustainability officer.

The goal of the sustainability professional is to integrate sustainability into the fiber of the company and into the hearts and minds of all employees. If we’re effective, we should be working ourselves out of a job, not becoming rock stars. Marketing professionals can be recognized for a killer advertising campaign; accounting, for a successful audit; and operations, for improving efficiencies. In sustainability we strive to have each department embrace and own sustainability. We push recognition for achievements out to our co-workers. Pushing recognition deep into the company is essential for building ownership and buy-in. Or is it?

Photo credit: CC license by The U.S. Army/Flickr

Remember back to Psych 101 and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Recognition is right up there at the top of the pyramid with love and respect. Recognition can inspire people to do more. It drives trust and increases engagement. That’s why it’s such a powerful tool for the sustainability manager. Recognition builds awareness, enthusiasm and visibility for the corporation’s sustainability efforts, both inside and outside the company.

On the other side, however, it is also important that CSOs and their teams be recognized both internally and externally. Visible sustainability leadership can improve brand awareness, increase sales and build brand loyalty. And let’s not forget about personal sustainability and career advancement. CSOs are no less worthy of recognition than our co-workers.

But does CSO recognition detract from or weaken the work to push sustainability through a business? What is the appropriate balance to cultivate ownership among our co-workers, yet recognize the sustainability staff’s good work? There might be no “I” in team, but is it okay to communicate the “I’s” (multiple ones, appropriately) in sustainability?

Not just one role

After more than two decades performing this dance, I have learned that the balancing point between visibility/recognition and keeping a low profile is a constant readjustment. It’s not a case of wallflower or rock star. It’s both. Sometimes I’ve needed to boost the morale of key internal stakeholders. Other times, our team has needed visibility and recognition as the driver of so much good work in order to secure our fair share of the budget. There have been years when I rarely spoke at conferences or had any sort of outward visibility, as what the business needed most was an internal focus. Other years, an external push was just what was required both to increase the value proposition of our brand to consumers and to attract recognition to fuel internal pride, enthusiasm and support.

This balancing act has several facets that are always present, just at varying degrees of focus. We must celebrate the victories throughout the organization and push credit for accomplishments deep into the company, as that will increase awareness, ownership, engagement and enthusiasm. But we also need to take steps to meet the personal and professional needs of our staff and ourselves: networking and attending conferences to nurture your inspiration, finding mentors and peers with whom we can commiserate and celebrate, recognizing our staff, and making sure our bosses and CEOs know the important role we and our teams play in facilitating sustainability achievements.

Yes, there is great truth in Sandberg’s words, and I and many women need to “lean-in” more. Yes, as CSOs we need to be visible internally and externally to create awareness, excitement, value and engagement. And yes, we need to be sure that we and our staff get the respect and recognition needed to sustain us in our work.

As for working for your sibling, well, there’s always therapy.

After brooding on this issue, it has been jarred into perspective for me by the recent New York Times headline “Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.”

We’ve hit 400 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As I look in on my sleeping daughter at night, I am reminded that perhaps all of this pondering is for naught. Our work is really not about “I,” or even “we” — but them.

While we continue to strive for the perfect balance, in the end, as CSOs, we are enormously fortunate to do meaningful work that will create a better world for all. The imperative is as grave as ever. Do good work. Fast.