This July, the Conference Board brought together nearly 200 community relations experts at their annual Corporate Community Involvement Conference. Looking around the room, I saw a diverse set of faces there, representing corporate giving, foundations, marketing, human resources and government relations. It made me wonder “What are the characteristics of a successful sustainability professional?” Yes, this job requires the ability to analyze complex information, influence others, build trust, lead teams and speak publicly. But what does it really take to shine?
1. Professional Listener:
Nate Garvis, founder of Naked Civics and keynote of the conference, stated that CSR folks must be “professional listeners.” Whether the voice comes from an external constituent or an internal manager, CSR professionals must listen to the needs, motivations, concerns, perspectives and bias in order to create programs that are informed, inclusive and solutions-oriented. Stakeholders need to feel included and integrated into programs. Sitting with individuals, listening without an agenda and asking great questions will help you think differently, consider alternative options and build a more inclusive and thoughtful program.
2. U.N.-level Interpreter:
Corporations have their own internal language. The acronyms, the buzz words. Our job as sustainability professionals are to take the messages and input we receive from external audiences and translate those perspectives into language that is most relevant and useful to internal decision-makers. Similarly, distilling the internal language into clear and useful information for external audiences such as nonprofits or regulators helps enormously to avoid misperceptions or misinterpretations. Both audiences must feel that you “speak their language” and trust that you can help build bridges between diverse sets of interests.
Yes, it’s a buzzword. But an apt one. Sustainability professionals must constantly push the status quo and serve as an individual who understands the corporate culture, using it to help drive change. Building new is tough, but building new within the confines of existing norms, expectations and systems? That’s brave. This position doesn’t always make you popular, but the ability to “build from within” is a tremendous talent that is essential to innovation and evolution.
4. Gifted Storyteller:
As a sustainability professional, our job is to tell a story. The story of why coffee beans are purchased from one farm and not another. The story of how employees became ardent supporters of the annual Special Olympics program. The story of why a particular environmental NGO is encouraging our company to stop a certain practice. Bottom-Up, top-down, or side to side… our job is to make sure that the successes, misses and reasons for complex sustainability issues are easily articulated and compelling to our audiences.
5. Knowledge Hound:
All those years of nerdiness have finally paid off. My job is now to constantly review current trends, solutions, issues and programs in an ever evolving field of corporate sustainability. Content-area Expert is a must – colleagues will come to you with diverse challenges and the CSR professional must know where to get the information – and from which organization to solicit best practices and solutions.
6. Act Like a Four Year Old:
This is my favorite characteristic and it’s stolen from Kyle Cahill, Manager of Corporate Citizenship at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (and conference panelist). You must be tenacious. “No” is not a satisfactory answer. Your sustainability ideas will require systems change, culture shifts, risks and innovation. When a colleague tells you “No,” simply ask “why.” And “why” again. And again. Keep asking until you get an answer that allows you to find a new solution.
And number 7? Ability to check the ego at the door. At the end of the day, our job is to make other people shine – the operations manager that built a new environmentally-friendly waste system, the call center employee that created a program allowing hundreds of employees to volunteer, the board member that created new language for governance protocols. We create platforms and resources for them to do their jobs more effectively, then stand in the shadows while they take their just applause. There’s no place I’d rather be.
GUEST BLOG POST: Alyson Genovese is a freelance consultant on issues related to sustainability,corporate social responsibility, public affairs, and employee engagement. She has over 16 years of experience in the private, nonprofit and academic sectors. Alyson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.causesolutions.com Twitter: @alysongenovese
Realized Worth works with companies to design and implement employee volunteer programs.