New Breed of Human Resource Leader

By Nancy Hatch Woodward Jun 13, 2008
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HR Magazine, June 2008 Going green has become a business strategy requiring focused attention.

Robyn Beavers felt chills last summer as she watched Google switch on 1.6 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels system at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. "It was the largest corporate solar installation in the country at that time and our first concrete evidence of the commitment we have to being the greenest company out there," says Beavers, founder of Google's Green Business and Operations Strategy Team. The team consists of three members, all considered sustainability officers (SOs).

Beavers believes that for a company to have an effective approach to sustainability, it needs sustainability officers. It's a growing trend, says Rick Walker, senior national manager of environmental solutions at Siemens Building Technologies in Buffalo Grove, Ill., who penned an article for GreenBiz.com, a resource on business and the environment, about the business case for having a chief sustainability officer (CSO). "It's stunning how quickly this marketplace is moving, how many universities and corporations have named sustainability officers," he says. "They may not have it 'right,' but they are making the effort."

The Push

Going green has been elevated to a key business strategy for employers today. In the future, a company's carbon statement will be as prominent as its financial statement, says Ian Pearson, who was Minister of State for Climate Change and Environment for Great Britain. In a May 2007 address at the United Nations' 15th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, he also noted that companies "need to face up to the realities of climate change and the risks that it poses to their longer-term interests."

Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program, an international nonprofit organization for fostering enlightened leadership headquartered in Washington, D.C., wrote in the Harvard Business Review this past March that pension funds, state controllers, institutional investors and even investment bankers are "putting pressure on companies to change their tune when it comes to the environment."

Why the change? It's smart business to go green. In fact, according to a 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit report, global companies with strong share price growth during the past three years are more proactive on corporate sustainability issues than companies that have seen their share prices stagnate or decline.

Why an SO?

Since the early 1990s, Mitsubishi International Corp., a U.S. wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp., a general trading company with 54,000 employees in 80 countries, has focused on environmental concerns, explains Tracy Austin, general manager of corporate communications for the New York-based company. But it wasn't until this past January that Ryoichi Ueda, president and CEO of the company, was officially designated as its chief sustainability officer. "Taking it [sustainability] from the principle to practice has proved to be not so automatic," says Austin. "We needed a sustainability officer to ensure that the heads of the different business departments would focus on it."

Background and Competencies

There is much inconsistency in the roles of SOs, says Walker. There are chief sustainability officers, directors of sustainability and committees that oversee sustainability. Their backgrounds are even more varied. "Sustainability officers get assigned from all over the place," he says, including public relations, environmental health and safety (EHS), facilities, procurement, or risk management. Beavers' background is in civil engineering; Kaplan is an energy and environmental attorney; and Ciannat Howett, director of university sustainability initiatives at Emory University in Atlanta, has a legal background.

Very often, says Walker, the person comes from an organization's EHS area or has an environmental science background, but that may not be the best background for sustainability officers. They may be great at compliance or understanding environmental issues, he says, but do they know how to connect with the business? Can they work with engineers on new product development, or do they have the competencies to put together strategies and plans or to implement initiatives?

He suggests that a sustainability officer does not necessarily have to be well-versed in all of the environmental issues, but must understand the business and be able to bring the right people together. The right person could be either a high- potential or long-tenured employee. High-potential candidates are those being groomed for higher-level positions -- people who can touch a lot of pieces of the business in a new and different way, says Walker. Longer-term employees well-versed in the business also may be good candidates, Walker points out, because they "understand all of the different touch points, have lots of personal contacts within the organization and can make sure everyone is playing toward the same ends."

So, outside of some environmental knowledge, what competencies are needed? Lin Little Blair, SPHR, who serves on the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Special Expertise Panel, says SOs need to be able to inspire and educate people, but they must also have a vision, be present- and future-focused, be results-driven, and be able to manage change. "It needs to be someone who has credibility at all levels of the organization and outside the organization, someone who has the skills to drive an initiative in spite of competing initiatives, obstacles and budgetary constraints."

In addition, Austin says it shouldn't be somebody who is concerned about internal politics or afraid of making waves. "It has to be someone who is willing to speak up about issues they think are important and that may go against the traditional business," she notes.

Communication Skills a Must

Experts agree that communication is key. The CSO has myriad audiences to address when it comes to getting the right buy-in for sustainability: senior management, employees, vendors, the public and shareholders. "A CSO is going to be dealing with groups, individuals, departments and companies that run the entire gamut of stages of understanding and acceptance of sustainability, and the CSO has to be able to understand the position of those in the audience as well as be able to communicate why they need to change or what the benefits of changing are," says Walker.

Luckily, most of the audiences are receptive:

  • Google's employees willingly endured the noise and disruptions required to install the solar panels.
  • Emory University found that many of its vendors were grateful for "our nudge," says Howett. For example, Emory informed its cafeteria vendor, Sodexho, about its goal of using sustainable foods -- organic and locally grown foods that reduce pollution and energy use from transportation. The food and management service ended up using Emory as the model for its national sustainability program.
  • Kaplan says Nixon Peabody's clients have been "eager to hear about our experience" and have wanted to share and collaborate with the law firm. She also says green vendors come to her; she doesn't have to look for them.
  • Mitsubishi found that even when vendors initially don't want to jump on board, having the mandate come down from the CSO really helps. "I convince suppliers that this is something they need to comply with," says Austin.

Walker notes that sustainability issues are also important to investors, which is why Siemens has kept a high rating with the Dow Jones STOXX Sustainability Index and the Dow Jones EURO STOXX Sustainability Index since their inceptions in 1999 and 2001, respectively.

Team Effort

Sustainability officers have a lot on their plates. Howett oversees energy, water, waste, recycling, transportation, building, green space protection, curriculum and research, purchasing, and food -- as well as education, public relations, and staff development and training. Additionally, CSOs may need to address investment options and fiduciary responsibilities, risk management, business opportunities, compliance issues, mergers and acquisitions, purchasing, and the return on investment of sustainability.

Companies should consider having more than one person overseeing sustainability, says Beavers, because there is so much to do that it can be hard for one person to oversee all of it, she says. Chief sustainability officers agree that there is plenty of work to go around, which is why one of the first things they do is to set up teams to work with them. According to SHRM's Green Workplace Survey Brief, HR professionals at organizations that have a policy of environmental responsibility reported that 32 percent of their companies had a senior management team in place that was responsible for creating and implementing environmentally responsible programs.

Howett notes that Emory has a main sustainability advisory committee and multiple subcommittees. Nixon Peabody has a Green Operating Steering Committee made up of its CSO, its operations director, four office administrators, and the heads of IT and purchasing.

Some companies include building maintenance, facilities, marketing, HR and finance when setting up their teams, says Little Blair, who serves as HR project leader for Arkansas BlueCross and BlueShield in Little Rock.

Walker says Siemens Building Technologies was "pretty clever about" putting its team together. It chose people from purchasing, manufacturing, HR, field support, etc. -- those who controlled 80 percent of the budget of the whole division. This way, he says, if they "see something that we can do quickly and easily, we don't have to go ask for permission; we just make the change." This is important, he notes, because, except for the sustainability strategy and goals, CSOs "really don't own anything." They have to depend on getting resources from other areas.

Setting Goals

Because sustainability officers are a fairly new breed, setting and prioritizing goals can be overwhelming. Most companies have already begun some green initiatives, so the first step is to look at what has already been accomplished and what else needs attention. Mitsubishi started with a corporate social responsibility survey to look at the activities it was already doing so its CSO could determine which areas needed special attention. The idea was to take a fresh look at the impact that climate change, resource depletion, and oil and gas prices were having on the business and see these issues as business risks -- not just from a compliance standpoint, but also from a strategic planning standpoint. "We want to take advantage of the opportunities that all of these factors present, but we also wanted to make sure we were managing our carbon footprint," Austin explains.

Emory University looked at what it could do quickly without much effort to jump-start its goal setting. School leaders also decided that before they talked about going beyond mere compliance in environmental health and safety, they needed to make sure they were absolutely compliant with current regulations. The Emory team also listed some purely aspirational goals, such as reducing energy consumption by 25 percent and having 75 percent local or sustainable foods in their hospitals and cafeterias by 2015. Team members weren't sure how they were going to reach the energy reduction goal when they set it, but since have found ways to accomplish it.

Sustainability is not just for the future -- its benefits can be seen immediately, even in this economy. Walker says he used to hear from skeptics to "just wait until the economy collapses; this green crap is going to disappear."

But, he says, even though construction starts are way down right now, green building is way up. "The market has transformed," he says, "so get over it. It's going to be the companies that transform with it that will succeed, and those that don't will fail."

The author is a freelance writer based in Hixson, Tenn., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM survey brief: Green Workplace 

SHRM article: Be an Insider on Social Responsibility 

SHRM article: Corporate Social Responsibility Pays Off (HR Magazine)

SHRM video: Daniel Feldman, sustainability legal consultant, on the type of background a sustainability consultant should have 

Web site: GreenBiz.com

Web site: Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program


Two Approaches

There are different ways to approach sustainability efforts:

Top-down. Everyone agrees that sustainability has to be driven from the top down, says Rick Walker, senior national manager of environmental solutions at Siemens Building Technologies.

"It's really a question of authority," says Tracy Austin, general manager of corporate communications for Mitsubishi International Corp. "We decided we needed a high-level position to symbolize the importance of the issue and also someone who could dictate down to the business managers."

Grass-roots. Ciannat Howett, director of university sustainability initiatives at Emory University, however, believes the top-down approach can't be the only strategy. You are really trying to integrate an ethic and culture of looking at decisions in a whole new way, which is why you need to create a kind of grass-roots culture shift, she says. International law firm Nixon Peabody has in each of its offices local sustainability teams that are made up of volunteers who meet on a monthly basis and come up with ideas for additional types of initiatives, while Google encourages passionate "Googlers" -- employees -- to take on their own initiatives and organize their activities. "We have a ton of projects that are organic that have come from our employees," says Robyn Beavers, founder of the company's Green Business and Operations Strategy Team.

For example, Google's employee shuttle system was devised by an employee more than four years ago, and now all of its shuttles run on biodiesel fuel. And employees in two of its offices decided to eliminate water bottles.


How Higher Education Sustainability Officers Spend Their Time

Task, Issue or Role

Average Percentage

Overall sustainability coordination

28.7

Work with students

14.9

Energy efficiency and management

9.6

Recycling and waste reduction

8.4

Community outreach

6.8

Data collection and reporting

6.0

Building construction and management

5.4

Research issues

3.7

Other (administration/
management, media relations, toxins reduction, fundraising)

3.1

Environmentally preferable purchasing

2.6

Transportation

2.6

Curricular issues (including sustainability
issues in course curricula)

2.3

Teaching courses

2.2

Green dining (local/organic foods, biodegradable
containers)

1.9

Environmental health and safety

1.8

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