NAEM Forum 2011: Lessons of an Emerging Leader

Kealy Devoy

I recently had the opportunity to attend the NAEM Forum in Tucson, Ariz. My primary motivation for going was to learn about trends in corporate sustainability and start feeling out the job market. As a member of NAEM’s new Emerging Leaders program and a masters student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the Forum was a great way to learn about what sustainability professionals do, and to network with some folks. I heard a lot of bright, innovative people speak throughout the event, and each session was nothing short of inspiring.

With the increased interest in sustainability, companies are faced with tough decisions about how to be competitive. Many companies are improving operational efficiency. Other companies are taking innovation to the next level by making significant and sometimes controversial changes to their operations. Why risk, for example, telling consumers to use less of your product to reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of the product? One speaker summed it up like this: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” If there are unaddressed inefficiencies in the way a company operates, they are essentially creating opportunities for other firms to win out.

As a future EHS and sustainability professional, I believe my generation has a lot to offer in the way of innovation and creativity. We are young, enthusiastic and have a fresh perspective  — a combination of traits that can help us see a business differently. But even experienced professionals sometimes have difficulty convincing upper-level management to try something new. So what can newcomers do to get taken seriously without stepping on toes?

I asked this very question during one of the keynote sessions at the Forum. The three-member panel had a lot to say on this topic. After listening to them discuss solutions to my dilemma, I came away with several great ideas that all Emerging Leaders should know:

  • Don’t be afraid to step on toes. Just because you don’t have as much experience as your supervisor doesn’t mean that he or she will be offended if you bring new ideas to the table. And if someone does get miffed that the new kid is trying to make a meaningful contribution, don’t let it get to you. Firms these days need new ideas to stay competitive. Don’t shy away from your desire to be heard.
  • Do your homework. Have an idea? Get out there and find out as much about it as you can. Are other companies doing it? Will it help your firm gain competitive advantage? What do experts have to say about the issue? Whether it is a simple efficiency improvement, a new product, or a drastic change to the business model, you should have as many details about it as you can. If you can get in front of upper-level management to pitch the idea, they are going to have a lot of questions, and you need to be prepared.
  • If at first you don’t succeed: try, try again. You may have heard this a lot growing up, and it is no less applicable now. When you’re new to an organization it might take time for those around you to realize the value of a fresh pair of eyes. Don’t let one (or two or three) “no’s” get you down. If your idea is sound and makes good business sense, you can make it happen. Try finding someone else in the organization that has been there for a few years. Ask them about how different managers like to get information, what questions they might ask, and what their primary concerns are. A more seasoned professional can guide you to the right person and help you collect the information they will want.

With these tactics, any young professional can pioneer a new process or project. I continue to be amazed by some of the initiatives being announced by NAEM member companies, all due to creative problem-solving on the part of their internal environmental leaders. The private sector has the opportunity to make serious changes in the way that they operate with no losses in the quality of their products and services. All it takes is the courage to be unconventional. What other advice might you have for Emerging Leaders?


About Kealy Devoy

Kealy Devoy is a second-year at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment pursuing a Master of Environmental Management in the Energy and Environment concentration. She is an active member of NAEM’s Emerging Leaders program.

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  1. Rick Lebherz

    December 13, 2011

    Kealy ,
    Thanks for your thoughts. That is good advice.
    I try to help companies leverage modern software systems to manage EHS and sustainability data, and I understand your suggestions well. When you are a new kid on the block you see thing in ways others don’t, but going up against 30+ years of experience can be a bit intimidating. Many times I go back to simple advice I heard years ago. Those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter. If you are truly coming from a place that is trying to help all parties involved (and you have done your homework thoroughly) its amazing how well received your ideas can be. Good luck on your future journey.

  2. Bob Brayley

    January 20, 2012

    As one of those people with 30+ years of experience I appreciate all of the advice given above. It’s been very clear to me that the people who succeed are those that are willing and able to change the status quo. However there are some caveats:
    -You can’t push so hard that you end up falling on your sword. You can’t change an organization that you no longer belong to. When you hit a solid road block a change of course is necessary. In large organizations there is often more than one way to achieve an objective. The indirect route may take longer and be more work, but it often results in a more lasting success.
    -It may be necessary to build some credibility before pushing new ideas. Solving some of the organizations nagging old problems or improving an established process will help an individual to be viewed as a problem solver and lend credence to more innovative suggestions.

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