How Arizona State aims to create business sustainability leaders

Two Steps Forward

How Arizona State aims to create business sustainability leaders

For the last several years, Arizona State University has been on something of a sustainability binge. Slowly but steadily — and relatively quietly — it has amassed an impressive coterie of talent, some from traditional academic backgrounds, others from the practitioner world. In 2006 ASU became the first U.S. school to boast a School of Sustainability. ASU co-hosts (along with the University of Arkansas) The Sustainability Consortium, a group of companies, NGOs and others working to develop science-based tools to embed sustainability into consumer products.

And then there’s the Global Institute of Sustainability, the hub of much of this activity. Created in 2004 by a large grant from Julie Ann Wrigley (widow of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley) and bolstered last year by an even larger grant from Rob and Melani Walton (Rob is the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton), the Institute has created a head-spinning constellation of initiatives, programs, centers and events. [Disclosure: GreenBiz Group is partnering with both the Institute and The Sustainability Consortium for our 2014 GreenBiz Forum.]

This month, the Institute is launching its latest program, the Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership, an effort to bolster the organizational leadership skills of mid- and late-career professionals engaged in sustainability. It stands to fill a critical gap in sustainability education in business.

The program is a one-year (January to January) program based around four principal curriculum “threads”: leadership, strategy, communication and global context. Each thread is lead by an industry leader and complemented by instructors from a pool of academics and practitioners. Students work on a real-world independent project pulled from their company.

Input into the program design came from a survey conducted for ASU by my colleague John Davies of the 4,000-member GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, a survey group that we poll monthly on a range of topics. The survey garnered nearly 400 responses to our questions about what type of educational program prospective students would find useful for career advancement. As Davies reported last November, “More than 80 percent of respondents believe formal education could help in their current job or future career.” Seventy-six percent said universities can help organizations achieve their sustainability goals. Only 4 percent said this would not be a good match.

That’s a pretty rousing response that points up a sizable gap — and a significant opportunity for educational institutions.

“A lot of what we saw out there looked like they were traditional MBAs with just a little bit of green injected in some way or another,” Bruno Sarda, director of global sustainability operations at Dell and a consultant to the ASU program, told me recently. “When I look at a typical green MBA curriculum, it feels to me like their approach is, 'Here’s content we want to share or push out.' What we felt was different is a curriculum that starts from the point of view of, 'What are the people we’re trying to reach struggling with and what kind of help do they need and what is it that will make them more successful?'”

There does seem to be a strong real-world focus to this program. Sarda, for example, himself an ASU alumnus, has been teaching a course called “Preparing for Career Success in Sustainability” that is said to be pretty popular.

“One of the things we’ve found is that there’s a real yearning for organizations to understand what sustainability is and [how] it can add value to organizations,” Christopher Boone, professor and interim dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability, told me. “Sustainability is not just about understanding human environment systems, although that’s foundational. Ultimately, it’s about finding solutions. When we’re thinking about solutions, we need to think about not just how things work in theory, but how we can apply that theory to find solutions to complex problems.”

Boone sees a potentially exciting interplay between the executive education program and the school’s traditional graduate and undergrad programs. “By working with people who are mid-career or even late career in sustainability, we get to see whether or not what we’re teaching the class is actually making a difference on the ground. It will be an important feedback mechanism for the school.”

The first cohort begins in January, with enrollment starting in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to watch — in particular, whether the hunger for knowledge expressed in the surveys translates into enrollment. As with most start-up programs, it likely will take a year or two to find out.

Says Sarda: “Ultimately, the success will be in how many people actually show up.”

On Aug. 20, I’ll be hosting a one-hour webcast, The Secrets of Sustainable Leadership in Business, sponsored by the ASU Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership program. Register here.

Photo of the Global Institute of Sustainability Building courtesy of Arizona State University.