In the first five articles of The EI Group’s blog on “Building a Sustainability Culture,” we provided recommendations on launching your program with some obvious sustainability initiatives or “easy wins,” shared tips on engaging the workforce to become sustainability advocates and offered suggestions to be used during early program direction. These early victories were aimed at building brand and engaging participation through the promotion of employee sustainability at home, in the workplace and the local community.  

Once you have demonstrated to corporate management that sustainability is an investment and the program has potential to become an integral part of workplace culture, this traction can be used to secure a long term philosophical and financial commitment from corporate management

The next step is a crucial one – identifying key stakeholders within various business units as company sustainability team leaders.  

These business unit leaders will be charged with implementing strategies and programs in the workplace where there is typically no uniform definition of sustainability. Even more challenging, they often will be expected to generate results with limited management authority, nominal staffing and tight budgets. Given these restraints, obviously your sustainability team leaders must be passionate about leading the sustainability culture change at work, but what core characteristics make good company sustainability leaders? 

A national survey drawn from 32 sustainability professionals, was conducted to determine what were the core traits/skillsets of effective sustainability managers. Respondents ranged from Chief Sustainability Officers reporting directly to the CEO, to sustainability managers several direct reports below that level from public and private FORTUNE 100 companies with publicly recognized sustainability programs. In all cases, the respondents were responsible for integrating sustainability within their organizations, with tasks ranging from strategic planning to day-to-day implementation.  

The survey identified 3 principle components of sustainability leader success:

1) Interpersonal skills;
2) Ability to quantify the value of an initiative; and
3) Subject matter expertise.

Prior to taking their corporate sustainability position, 78% assumed subject matter expertise was the most important attribute of sustainability leaders. However, once they were on the job, 100% agreed the most important driver of a sustainability leader’s success was interpersonal skills! Although knowledge of subject matter is critical, sustainability leaders must first sell the CONCEPT of sustainability, before focusing on the science. The ability to promote a sustainable workplace culture across an organization, from line manufacturing employees to senior management, was viewed as critical in achieving long term sustainability objectives.

There are several reasons sustainability leaders need strong interpersonal skills. They spend much of their efforts working across boundaries, such as professional disciplines, culture, geography and business units. In order to effectively navigate these obstacles, they must have the ability to engage in social networking, possess emotional intelligence, be good communicators and have the ability to exert influence over employees or groups of employees over whom they may have little authority. These attributes are essential for effectively penetrating corporate silos and building strong internal networks.  

It is significantly more important for your company’s sustainability leaders to have a broad general knowledge of their organization and know how to effectively navigate across it, rather than possess detailed knowledge of the science of sustainability. They must be adaptive professionals, with strong interpersonal skills, who can create spaces for stakeholders to work together to build a sustainable culture within your company. Sustainability leaders must also be able to enthusiastically promote new sustainable ideas, capture employee attention, challenge the status quo and be catalysts for company change. Keep these characteristics in mind when assembling your sustainability leadership team representatives from such areas as production, manufacturing engineering, quality control, human resources and finance!

How Can We Help?
The EI Group, Inc. (EI) provides a comprehensive array of services for the development and execution of sustainability initiatives relevant to your business. We actively seek ways to improve sustainability performance while supporting business goals. Contact us today at (800) 717-3472 or [email protected] to learn more!