9 secrets to success for the treehugger in corporate sustainability leadership

Tim Mohin, Director of Corporate Responsibility at AMD

Tim Mohin, Director of Corporate Responsibility at AMD

What does it take for the treehugger to succeed in corporations? Even once you’ve got that all-important corporate responsibility (CR) role, you will have to keep proving yourself to unwilling business partners and sceptical colleagues. If you want sure-fire success but you’re not sure how to go about becoming the sustainable superstar of your company, what can you do? Engage more, communicate better and stop being overzealous about your cause, says Tim Mohin:

While numerous graduate programmes are popping up that offer training in sustainable business and corporate responsibility, very few people in the CR field have these degrees. Most people working in CR positions have education and experience in some other area and have followed their passion to get to one of these jobs. After talking to several of my colleagues and thinking through my own experiences, I identified nine core skills that are important elements to success in corporate responsibility:

1. Be flexible like Gumby and curious like George
Working in CR is a lifelong learning experience that rewards the flexible and curious. Corporate responsibility touches just about every issue within the company. On a single day, you may have to field questions on your company’s human rights policy, the independence of the directors on your board, your water conservation measures and the diversity of your workforce.
The breadth of this role can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part is being asked to represent areas you know very little about. The exhilarating aspect is learning about all of these areas. People who are naturally curious, have a high tolerance for ambiguity and are eager to take on new tasks tend to thrive in corporate responsibility roles.

2. Hold on to your core competency while learning new skills
Just about everyone in corporate responsibility started their careers in another field. Whether you come from a marketing background or environmental science, corporate responsibility is a big tent and there is always a way to apply your skills. The key to success is to walk the line between contributing knowledge from your core competencies, and being pigeonholed into a narrow role defined by these competencies.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
There is no other single skill as important as communication for success in corporate responsibility. Whether in written communications, in speaking to large groups, or in persuading a small group of internal stakeholders, communications skills are essential. The corporate responsibility professional is often in the position of communicating a fairly complex set of facts — for example, climate protection strategies — to emotionally charged, less-technical audiences. The ability to condense complicated topics into a relevant and cogent set of messages and present them skilfully can be the differentiator for your success in corporate responsibility.

The key to success is to walk the line between contributing knowledge from your core competencies, and being pigeonholed into a narrow role defined by these competencies.

If you were not born with these skills, do not despair. Communications is a trainable skill if you apply the proper focus. Like playing the piano, you can build your communication skills through instruction and practice. Seek feedback and, combined with your own self-assessment, define the areas where you will take tangible actions to improve and practice, practice, practice!

4. Lead through influence
Since the corporate responsibility professional has responsibility to communicate about numerous programmes that he or she has little authority to control, it is essential to lead through influence. To effectively influence others, the ability to grow productive professional relationships is essential. Like communications, not everyone is born with this skill, but it can be learned.
Leading through influence means building relationships with internal stakeholders, which can be tricky. The most important thing to remember is that the relationship is more important than any short-term victory.

[Working in a CR] role can be both terrifying and exhilarating.
© David Castillo Dominici

5. Read the system
An important skill is to understand the overarching paradigm of the business and culture you work in and how it shapes corporate behaviour.
The skill here is harder to define because it refers to understanding what is not being said. For example, you might have a meeting where you come away feeling fantastic about the commitment to corporate responsibility goals, but a few months later you realise that nothing has been accomplished to implement these goals. In some corporate cultures, people would rather appear to agree, when there is some unsaid reason why they do not agree. After a few of these experiences you need to ask yourself what is really going on. While there may be no single answer, success lies in asking the question and analysing the situation.

While this skill area may seem like the least defined, doing this poorly can be the most deadly to your career. If you are not able to discern the paradigm of the group or individual you are trying to influence the outcome can be disastrous. Doing this well, on the other hand, is a catalyst for success.

6. Learn and practice “corporate jujutsu”
A common mistake that many corporate treehuggers make is to be a bit too passionate about their cause to protect people and the planet. This can come across as overzealous and might communicate a lack of understanding or commitment to other corporate imperatives. Working on social and environmental causes within a big company is a bit like corporate jujutsu. Jujutsu is a “Japanese martial art and a method of close combat for defeating an armed and armoured opponent in which one uses no weapon, or only a short weapon.” While the martial arts metaphor might seem confrontational, jujutsu is an apt metaphor for this career path. It is defined as being “gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding” (Ju) and “manipulating the opponent’s force against himself rather than confronting it with one’s own force” (Jutsu).

Working in the field of corporate responsibility, you will often find that the best pathway to achieving your results is a circuitous one. There will be numerous times when you are told “no” and given a ton of reasons why your ideas or programmes won’t work. A defining characteristic of corporate responsibility is working in areas where you have no authority. In this situation, you will frequently encounter resistance to your CR programmes and initiatives. The essential skill here is to absorb the force of the resistance with grace but stick with your values and find creative alternatives to continue to work with your business partners.

7. Be entrepreneurial
Success in corporate responsibility often means finding hidden value. The notion that a company can simply contribute to charity, volunteer in the community, or reduce its environmental footprint and expect to be a leader in corporate responsibility is long dead. These days, successful corporate responsibility programmes are integrated into the business, which means that corporate treehuggers must be entrepreneurial and find the most efficient and effective ways to return value to the company.

If you can be the connector that brings the people together to develop new programmes that benefit the company and the environment, you will become a superstar.

The need to tie corporate responsibility to business value is an essential skill. Don’t assume that, because you have a job in the CR department, your company’s leaders accept the value of your role. Success depends on being able to find, assess and prioritise initiatives that can add value to the company. Marrying corporate responsibility with the profit motive is the Holy Grail for the corporate treehugger. If you can be the connector that brings the people together to develop new programmes that benefit the company and the environment, you will become a superstar.

8. Pay attention to detail, discipline, quality and results
An important attribute to any successful corporate responsibility programme is a disciplined management system. This means that you need to understand and clearly communicate the measurable goals that your programme will deliver each year and develop the business processes that will produce these results. For example, producing an annual corporate responsibility report requires that you establish public-facing goals for each programme (e.g., water use reduction, workforce diversity, supply chain audits, etc.), collect the data needed from each department, and create a compelling story for the report. To succeed at this year after year, you need to be able to establish the basics: who is providing the data, who will write the story, who will review, who is providing all of the graphics and images, as well as manage the schedule and budget for the entire endeavour.

9. Above all, passion for the cause
Whether you add value by developing detailed management systems or by running an entrepreneurial skunk works, the common element for most people in corporate responsibility jobs is passion for the cause. If you look at your profession as a cause rather than a job, you will find the energy to persevere through almost any situation. Regardless of your background or skills, the common denominator for most CR professionals is a passion to do something wonderful: to help people and the planet and to leave a legacy of a career dedicated to making the world better. This may sound trite, but it is an essential element of this career path.

There are many hurdles to being a treehugger in the corporate world, and there will be many days when you might question this career choice. But ultimately, when you can connect your time and talent to something bigger than yourself, you can achieve deep and profound satisfaction in your career. The key to success as a corporate treehugger is to nurture the flames of your passion even when the inertia of company bureaucracy douses it with cold water.

Ultimately the skills and attributes described above can be applied to add value to many career paths within a company. This is a good sign, because it speaks to the integration of the corporate responsibility function into business. Rather than being a career cul-de-sac, a position in corporate responsibility cultivates skills that are applicable to a broad spectrum of career paths.

This post is adapted from an article by Tim Mohin on GreenBiz.com. You can access the original here.

Tim Mohin is the director of Corporate Responsibility at AMD. He has worked in similar roles for Apple and Intel. He is the author of Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations.

Buy Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a 30% discount. Just use voucher code CB963 at checkout.

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