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The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Selling CR is highly dependent on the internal communications skills of those who preach it.
 
 
Sustainability—little more than a buzzword in the corridors of corporate America a decade ago—today is a business concept that has been embraced by many companies in principle and, increasingly, in practice.
 
 
Yet, while more and more companies are integrating corporate sustainability strategies and programs into their daily business operations, sustainability, like a Rorschach inkblot, is prone to multiple interpretations. Is it a corporate citizenship initiative? A compliance function intended to appease stakeholders who might create friction? A competitive advantage to leverage with customers?
 

A strategy to attract and retain talent?
 
 
Indeed, despite the growing visibility of sustainability within corporations, leaders charged with integrating this emergent function must often operate in unique ways compared to other well-established C-suite positions. Sustainability leaders are expected to implement strategies and programs in workplace environments where there is often no clear or uniform definition of sustainability. Further, compared to their colleagues in the C-suite, chief sustainability officers are often expected to generate results within a context of limited management authority, nominal staffing, and razor-thin budgets.
 
 
For this reason, and in an effort to understand the skills, drivers, and partnership-cultivation strategies necessary for executive success, VOX Global, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting, and Net Impact Berkeley conducted a national survey of sustainability leaders.
 
 
Thirty-two respondents with publicly visible sustainability programs agreed to participate in an online survey. Respondents included sustainability professionals with levels of seniority ranging from chief sustainability officers to sustainability managers. In all cases, respondents were responsible for integrating sustainability, with tasks varying from strategic planning to day-to-day implementation.
 
 
The results of the survey are described below, and in the report, Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability From Inside Corporate America.
 
 
Key Findings
The survey identified three potential drivers of sustainability leaders’ success and asked respondents to evaluate the importance of each one:
• Interpersonal skills;
• Ability to quantify the value of an initiative; and
• Subject-matter expertise.
 
 
The results were revealing. Before taking the job, the majority (78 percent) said they had assumed that subject-matter expertise would be the most important predictor of success. Once on the job, however, all respondents (100 percent) said interpersonal skills proved to be most critical.
 

Subject mastery is crucial, but sustainability leaders said they had to first sell the concept of sustainability—and themselves—before focusing on the content. To secure buy-in, sustainability leaders, like other senior positions, also had to balance subject-matter expertise with business acumen. The ability to communicate the business case for sustainability in a language that resonates up, down, and across an organization, was viewed as essential to achieving the ultimate objectives.
 
 
In order to be successful, sustainability leaders must collaborate with colleagues across multiple business units—colleagues over whom these leaders often have no direct management oversight. Respondents said interpersonal and communication skills are the key to penetrating corporate silos and building strong internal networks.
Senior executive sponsorship is vital, with 78 percent of respondents saying support from top management was a key contributor to their success. But more than eight in 10 respondents (81 percent) identified their colleagues across the company as primary drivers of success.
 
 
This finding underscores the crucial importance of cultivating and honing soft skills. Sustainability leaders and their direct reports must be inexhaustibly social within their organizations and consciously egalitarian in their dealings with co-workers at every level.
 

Sustainability leaders must function as a bridge between a company and its external stakeholders. They must constantly monitor and prioritize the social and environmental issues that can impact a company’s ability to operate successfully.
 

Conventional wisdom suggests that non-governmental organization (NGO) pressure, regulatory policies, and sustainability rankings or indices are key external factors that drive the interest in sustainability inside a company. However, the survey results indicate that customer pressures, industry trends, and competitive issues were significantly more influential.
 
 
As sustainability programs and practices are adopted with increased frequency across industries and supply chains, satisfying customers and outpacing competitors are more important motivators for adoption than any other factors. In fact, vendors upstream in supply chains are recognizing that a robust commitment to sustainability might not only create competitive advantages, but might actually ensure continued viability. While purchasers in supply chains (i.e., large corporations) still select business partners based on traditional vendor-selection criteria such as price, availability, and quality, sustainability metrics are increasingly being factored into the decision-making process as well.
 
 
Looking Ahead
The bottom line of the findings is that sustainability means different things to different people and different companies. To be successful, sustainability leaders must provide context for their work in the same terms as other business units and define their impact in the lingua franca of the business. These leaders must use communication skills to link sustainability to core business objectives. Rather than using sustainability jargon, they must use phrases that are consistent with a company’s culture and business strategy. They must help import, translate, and embed issues from the outside world into the DNA of their companies.
 
 
The sustainability leader’s role, like many senior positions, requires a balance of subject-matter expertise with business acumen and the ability to communicate the business case in a language the company understands. And those leaders who most successfully create coalitions of the willing inside their organizations must on any given day assume many roles to be successful.
 
 
Successfully playing these roles requires a unique soft skill set that is not easily mastered. Common sense may suggest that executives need to be skillful at becoming change agents, networking internally, building coalitions, and seeing around corners. The extent to which sustainability leaders and their companies place a priority on honing these skills is not known. And the stakes are even higher for sustainability leaders, as they are often expected to generate ambitious results with fewer resources than their peers and rely on a group of willing volunteers across the company to achieve the expected results.
 
 
To be successful, 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 programmatic content that will deliver a return on investment—both reputational and financial—to their companies.
 

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