Scaling the Green Learning Curve
Scaling the Green Learning Curve
Chances are if you graduated from business school more than four years ago, classes related to the environment or "corporate social responsibility" were not part of the curriculum. But the notion of making business decisions that are good for the people, planet and profits has become the price of doing business in today's economy.
That's left executives scrambling to develop their own knowledge of green issues, and to assemble teams of people who have the skills, education and leadership to champion green business practices.
Outside of conventional business school programs, there are a growing number of educational opportunities for mid-career professionals to develop a proper knowledge of green business strategies and how they can be implemented as part of sound business practices. These courses are sprouting up at university extension programs and nonprofit organizations, as well as inside larger organizations where educators are feeling increasing pressure to fill the green knowledge gap.
"We have a lot of clients asking us what a sustainable workplace means," says Doug Ballon, vice president of learning and development for energy and sustainable services at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate and investment management services firm. Refreshing Your Skills
• To effectively deliver on green business goals, employees need to be educated on how to measure baselines, implement programs, and track results. Learning how to tie green business practices to bottom-line results will garner support from key stakeholders for green projects.
• Universities and nonprofit environmental groups often offer green business courses, or can help companies customize in-house training to meet the needs of employees.
• The needs and impact of every industry are different, and training should focus on how to deliver the best results for your business. Check for best practices, resources or training within your sector. The company recently launched Sustainability University, a virtual training program where employees and clients are learning strategies for improving the carbon footprint and reducing energy use of new and existing real estate, studying for professional green accreditation, such as LEED and BREEAM, and gaining specific skills to drive the development, management and leasing of environmentally friendly and energy-efficient commercial buildings.
"When you look at the range of issues that encounter sustainability, it is huge," Ballon says. "And we need to be able to speak with integrity about sustainability in our industry."
The university was developed to complement the company's environmental commitment, which includes leading the transformation of the property industry to reduce the environmental impact of commercial real estate in general, and the carbon footprint of its own properties.
"My role is to provide our employees the education they need to meet these commitments," says Ballon. "A lot of people haven't figured out what they need to do yet, and there are a lot of lessons that still need to be learned."
Along with developing prep courses for managers taking LEED and other industry certification exams, Ballon is in the midst of developing several courses to educate employees and clients on energy and carbon footprint issues as they pertain to the business.
The curriculum includes training on the construction of new buildings using technologies that move toward a zero-carbon impact on the environment; lowering energy consumption in existing buildings through renovations and management improvements; and guidance on reducing carbon footprints through the ACT: A Cleaner Tomorrow internal initiative that focuses on energy conservation, water conservation, emissions reduction, solid waste reduction, recycling and recycled materials use.
"Our focus is on the business benefits of these issues and what is going to best serve the clients," he notes. "Because everyone wants to save money and there is no faster way to do that then to reduce energy use."
This focus on business issues is critical for the success of any green training program, suggests Tara Sayre, senior project manager for Pacific Life health insurance company, and an instructor in the Sustainability Leadership Certification Program at the University of California at Irvine.
The UC Irvine program offers courses on legal concerns surrounding environmental legislation and regulations, the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in business, how to implement a green strategic vision, and communication strategies for marketing green projects.
"I approach my lessons from a strategic standpoint. We talk about the people, the planet and profits, and how it all ties together," she says of her course, Intro to CSR, Sustainability and Green Business. "That's the sustainability sweet spot -- finding projects where shareholder and societal interests overlap."
She notes that in a recent class discussion a student came up with the idea to leverage his company's offshore oil rig, which includes pipelines linking it to shore, by implementing a wave energy project.
"The company already owns the rights to the land and water space, and has the conduits in place to leverage additional power," she says. This would reduce the potential upfront costs of a green energy project, while making the oil rig more environmentally friendly and reducing energy costs in the long term.
"It's that kind of thinking that drives good green business ideas," she says.
She dedicates much of her virtual class time to helping students develop a foundation of knowledge and identifying areas within their own companies where they can launch green projects that will deliver these triple-bottom line results.
Part of that skill set includes being able to communicate the business benefits of a green project and define metrics that will measure the business and environmental results of their efforts, she says. These benefits may include money saved as a result of reduced energy or water use, increased revenue streams from green branded products, or cost avoidance due to impending environmental regulations.
"Learning how to make the business case for sustainability in your industry is vital because we're operating companies, not philanthropies," she says.
Kirwan Rockefeller, head of the sustainable leadership program at UC Irvine adds that enterprise-focused business and leadership training are vital for professionals being charged with managing green programs.
"There are a lot of academic programs focused on the science and technology, but few of them look at the broader picture of what sustainability is all about," he suggests. "We need people trained to take on leadership positions so they can drive change in organizations and create business decision-making processes that keep the notion of sustainability at the forefront."
Fortunately, he says, the UC Irvine course, and many other green professional training programs, are being offered online so anyone in the country can participate. Managers can also reach out to environmental nonprofits that may offer training or seminars, and speak to local universities to encourage them to develop their own green business curricula.
Companies across industries also need experts who can implement and measure the results of environmental impact programs, such as reducing water usage or greenhouse gas emissions, says Mark McElroy, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Innovation (CSI) in Thetford Center, Vt.
CSI was formed in 2004 to conduct research, development and training for companies interested in managing and improving the environmental impacts of their operations.
While much of the focus has been on developing tools and metrics to measure performance, its training component is gaining prominence in the nonprofit group's offerings as more and more companies come to CSI asking for help.
"Training is how we disseminate the results of our work and make it available to companies around the world," says McElroy.
CSI offers training in corporate sustainability management, which looks at how to incorporate environmental management criteria into the core business strategy; a Social Footprint Masters class that teaches students how to use CSI's measurement and reporting tools to quantify the environmental management performance of an organization; and the theory and practice behind performance metrics.
"We see corporate sustainability management as analogous to financial management," he says. "Just as financial managers track financial performance, corporate social managers should track how the company performs on environmental, societal and economic issues."
That, he says, takes training.
"If you make an executive commitment, such as reducing water usage, you have to know how to execute against that commitment and that's a complex process."
And as more and more companies set these substantial reduction goals, they need a leadership team that knows how to establish a baseline and prove results.
"Most of the companies that come to us are looking for knowledge into our approach to metrics and how to apply them because to say you are going to reduce your carbon footprint by 10 percent says nothing about the sustainability of your organization," he says. "You have to put it in context to the related conditions of the business and the world."
Sam Spector, a hospitality consultant based in Culver City, Calif., agrees.
"You can't just pull this kind of information off the web, you have to develop a knowledge and understanding of how to measure results to make it authentic," he says. "What's measured is managed. Being able to put it in numbers makes the business case for sustainability much more persuasively, and it helps get people on board with the program."
Spector is currently taking two courses on sustainability leadership and management through the UC Irvine program and a course on the principles of environmental sustainability at UCLA. Along with furthering his own knowledge of key issues, he sees the training as an opportunity for him to get ahead in his field.
His UC Irvine courses focus on marketing and ways to sell green projects and avoid greenwashing. They are also teaching him how to define the triple-bottom line results of green initiatives by first identifying project goals and metrics, establishing baselines and tracking results throughout the project.
The UCLA course is focused on the legal perspective of environmental issues, such as preparing for environmental regulations and approaching waste management and recycling programs from both a municipal and environmental standpoint.
He plans to use all of the knowledge from these courses to help his clients reduce waste and cut costs while reducing their environmental impacts. He also intends to help them prepare for future environmental regulations that could impact the way they use and dispose of resources.
"I'm learning that eventually there is going to be legislation that impacts my client's business. If I'm on the forefront of helping companies stay ahead of this legislation then I can position them -- and me -- for long-term success," he says.
Outside the Classroom
Professionals interested in obtaining a stronger knowledge of environmental leadership and practices will find more opportunities for training in the near future as local colleges and corporate training programs see the need for this kind of education, says Rockefeller.
"This is not a fad," he says. "There is a confluence of drivers moving the demand for training forward, making it a necessary component of business process for the long-term."
In the meantime, there are ample opportunities for less formal education about green issues through seminars, conference workshops, and networking, suggests Elizabeth Seeger, project manager and Geballe Fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, D.C.
The fellowship is a two-year program chartered to train rising business leaders in EDF's approach to achieving environmental solutions with business benefits.
As a fellow, Seeger attended several major green conferences -- the Sustainable Agriculture conference, the Sustainable Packaging conferences, and a Ceres conference on responsible investment.
"These were all huge events that helped me understand the issues and meet people," she says.
She has also taken media presentation training to give her the skills to speak eloquently and knowledgeably about green business issues. She regularly participates in corporate partnership meetings. Her biggest project, though a partnership with private equity firm KKR, gave her the chance to review their portfolio of projects to identify ways to green their operations. She was able to help them avoid 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, which led to $16.4 million in savings.
"All of these opportunities were designed to expose me to industry issues around sustainability," she says, noting that some of the biggest challenges the EDF partners face is understanding how to address environmental issues within the context of business. "It can be difficult to define and drive a sustainability program without a champion who has the training to understand the issues and constraints that a company will face."
And while most of the people participating in training programs, such as the one at UC Irvine, are self-motivated and attend because they are actively pursuing personal career advancement in green business leadership roles, Sayre predicts that more companies will start sending their management teams through this kind of training, particularly as legislation sets stricter requirements for conforming to better environmental practices.
"It's like a mini-MBA program in sustainability," she says. "Companies that are serious about impacting their bottom line while making the earth a better place to live should be sending their people through this kind of training, because without a trained team, you are just winging it."
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago.