"Sustainability" was little more than an environmental buzzword in corporate America a decade ago. Today it is a way of doing business that many companies have embraced in principle and, increasingly, in practice. These companies understand that integrating social and environmental issues into their DNA benefits their bottom lines and long-term growth. For these businesses, "going green" is about dollars and cents.
Yet, as the middle class population in developing countries more than doubles in less than a generation, natural resources will be further strained. This social and environmental reality will force companies to change the way they do business and adapt their operations to be successful and profitable. In an effort to understand the "secret sauce" necessary for integrating sustainability into a company's business operations, VOX Global, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting and a Net Impact team from the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study of 32 sustainability leaders and the findings appear in our report titled, "Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability from inside Corporate America."
Our study indicates that these sustainability executives are at the forefront of developing smarter ways for businesses to plan for this future that will minimize the risks and costs -- both financial and human -- to make this transition. And, by doing so, they will better position their companies to capture new market opportunities on the horizon.
While the 32 respondents and the companies they represent were diverse -- publicly traded and privately held, consumer facing and business-to-business -- the research showed that they adopted similar strategies for success. Three key findings emerged in our research:
Before taking their jobs, more than 75 percent of the sustainability executives surveyed thought that subject matter expertise would be the most important factor in their success. After being on the job, however, all of them reported that interpersonal skills were most critical.
While subject mastery is important, sustainability leaders said they had to first sell the concept of sustainability -- and sell themselves -- before focusing on specific initiatives. The ability to communicate the business case for sustainability in a language that resonates up, down and across an organization was the key to achieving success.
Our research partner, Ellen Weinreb, perhaps said it best:
"The report shows that interpersonal skills trump all and I have definitely seen that come through for my placements. While these skills are innate, the ability to hone and accelerate them while on the job is critical to their success."
Another key finding of the study revealed that, more than gaining C-Suite buy-in, four out of five respondents indicated that collaborating with colleagues at all levels inside a company was vital for success. This finding is even more significant given that the respondents had little to no direct management oversight across the various business units inside their companies. As such, sustainability leaders and their direct reports must be inexhaustibly social in their dealings with co-workers across the company. Successful collaboration necessitates the need to cultivate and hone a diverse set of "people" skills. It requires sustainability leaders to be good listeners and identify the business reasons and personal motivations that prompt colleagues to take action.
Beth Shiroishi, VP of Sustainability & Philanthropy at AT&T, best illustrates this finding:
"I think of myself and my team as chameleons. Being able to think and communicate in the same fashion as a business unit we're working with is, for me, the most important skill set needed to be successful."
Instead of telling the same "sustainability story" 100 different times, they told -- and sold -- their story to colleagues 100 different ways.
Conventional wisdom suggests that pressures from non-governmental organizations like human rights advocates and environmental groups, or sustainability rankings are important factors that direct attention to social and environmental issues inside a company. The leaders we talked to recognize that these influences -- though often highly visible and persistent -- in isolation do not necessarily drive corporate behavior. The desire to meet customer expectations and to rise above competitors was significantly more influential to survey respondents.
However, when those third party influences start to effectively impact customer preferences and provide competitive advantages, management starts to take notice. Simply put, the key business drivers of winning over the customer and beating the competition still comes first. New and future sustainability leaders would do well to remember this imperative.
The Bottom Line
The concept of "sustainability" will continue to mean different things to different people inside companies and across industry sectors. Sustainability leaders must provide context for their work in the same terms that other business units do, and define their impact in the lingua franca of the business. These leaders must develop and sharpen communication skills to link sustainability to core business objectives. Rather than using sustainability jargon, they must use words and phrases that are consistent with a company's culture and business strategy. They must introduce, translate and embed issues from the outside world into the DNA of their companies.
To be successful, then, sustainability leaders must first master context inside their organizations. Only after trust is earned and collaboration is underway can they expect to be successful implementing programs that will deliver a return on investment -- both reputational and financial -- to their companies.
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