We are both part of “Sustainability Veterans,” an informal group of professionals who have had leadership roles in the world of corporate sustainability and are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference. We see value in bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to support those who have picked up the mantle from us and are seeking to raise corporate ambitions and achievements.
Some of what we all have in common is a desire to help the next generation of sustainability leaders be successful. In that spirit, we hosted a vibrant roundtable at GreenBiz 20 last month to learn what questions were uppermost on their minds. Then, as a group, the Sustainability Veterans talked about how we want to pass on the lessons we learned in the trenches.
We started by asking this question of our Vets: “What do you think are the one or two most important attributes for someone to move ahead in a sustainability career?” Here’s what some of them had to say:
Deep listening and empathy: You may believe that you know exactly what your company needs to do, but do you really understand all that may be required of others? Deep listening and empathy will build trust, make the difficult work mutual and respectful, and bring together all the knowledge and experience necessary for sustainable change.
— Bart Alexander is former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors. He consults on leading sustainable change through Alexander & Associates LLC, and climate change action through Plan C Advisors.
Selfless systems thinking: Sustainability is the ultimate team sport. Large non-traditional stakeholder “ecosystems” are needed to tackle global challenges like resource depletion, degradation and climate change. To build these “ecosystems” egos and institutional arrogance must be replaced by intellectual curiosity. Asking “What if … ” is a good place to start.
— Mark Buckley is the former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative.
Initiative and resourcefulness: Initiative to launch multiple programs, often with little explicit direction, and the resourcefulness to maintain momentum on your sustainability goals, procurement policies, reporting, employee engagement programs and communications with little budget or staffing.
— Jacqueline Drumheller led Alaska Airlines’ formal sustainability program as sustainability manager and is consulting.
Leadership at every level: To succeed in a sustainability career, you must be someone who is a strong internal and external leader. Both are equally important, and this is a “leadership” role regardless of what level you are at. These roles demand courage, vision and the ability to build relationships at all levels both inside and outside the company.
— Cecily Joseph is the former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec and serves as chair of the Net Impact Board of Directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School.
Super collaborators. When a department head sees you coming, they should not be thinking, “I don’t like this tree hugger who’s a real pain, pushing her agenda on me.” Rather, they should be enthused, thinking, “So glad she’s coming. She helps me, makes things simple. I trust her.”
— Bob Langert was vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s and is editor at large for GreenBiz.
Live your values. If you want to convince others to take up sustainability actions, you need to demonstrate what a balanced life looks like. (Take your vacations!) Provide positive feedback to people and parts of your organization that are making progress. Celebrate progress as often as you can.