Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability From Inside Corporate America
August 2, 2012
Corporate sustainability leaders should ditch the jargon of sustainability when selling it inside their companies to ensure successful program adoption.
The path to success is developed by understanding business objectives and using broad interpersonal skills to communicate social and environmental issues in the language business leaders will understand, according to a new study.
The study -- conducted through a partnership between Vox Global, a Washington-based firm specializing in corporate sustainability consulting; Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting; and the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, Berkeley -- sheds new light on the skills, drivers, and internal collaboration strategies necessary for sustainability executives to find success.
"Trying to get people to think about sustainability, understand it, and then align our business strategy takes a lot of dialogue, discussion, and influencing skills," said John Gardner, chief sustainability officer at Novelis. "You can be very bright and smart on sustainability and the science, but if you can't convince people why it makes good business sense, your initiative will go nowhere."
Charged with integrating a relatively new and evolving function within their company and generally operating with fewer resources than traditional business units, sustainability leaders say they primarily rely on interpersonal skills, rather than subject matter expertise. The study found that prior to taking their job, nearly three quarters of respondents thought subject matter expertise was the most important factor to be successful. But after being on the job, 100 percent of respondents stated interpersonal skills were the most important factor.
"The secret sauce of success is balancing subject matter expertise with strong interpersonal skills -- leadership traits that are not easily developed," explained Tony Calandro, senior vp, Vox Global.
More important than senior executive buy-in, 81 percent of respondents stated that they rely instead on collaborating with colleagues and co-workers at all levels of the company in order to integrate sustainability throughout their organizations. This finding is even more significant given the fact that they have little to no management authority over these colleagues inside their companies.
Counter to conventional wisdom, the survey also found that traditional business drivers like customer pressures and competitors were significantly more influential in compelling change inside companies than external factors driven by NGO pressures, regulatory policies and sustainability rankings.
Thirty-two corporate sustainability leaders -- primarily from Fortune 100 companies -- participated in the online survey and included in-depth phone interviews with sustainability officers and senior executives at McDonald's, Novelis, AT&T, DuPont, EMC and Hilton Worldwide.
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