The Most Important Weapon in the Sustainability Toolbox

Bruce Klafter

Bruce Klafter

Pop Quiz: What is the most important skill sustainability professionals need to do their job?

An understanding of lifecycle analysis?  The ability to calculate a greenhouse gas inventory?  A command of climate science? Experience with kaizen, poke yoke and genchi genbetsu (all Japanese supply chain management concepts)?

In my humble opinion, the most important and oft-used tool is an optimistic outlook.  The reason for this somewhat surprising conclusion is that sustainability managers are typically working to exert influence across an organization, which may mean working without authority or as I like to say “working without a net”.

In the job descriptions I’ve written for the sustainability family at my company, this trait is referred as “a positive attitude and passion for sustainability.”  A number of organizations that  have taken a more exhaustive and scholarly approach to identifying job skills have also singled out “passion”, “enthusiasm” and a “positive attitude” as a key skills or attributes for people working in this emerging field.  For more information, you may refer to studies from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals,  the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association.

When confronted with our colleagues’ protests that they lack the time, the resources, the bandwidth, or simply the interest to support a sustainability initiative, what is the best response?

My thesis is that a negative response (e.g. expressing disappointment, anger, exasperation) is never the right response.  After all, if the sustainability team cannot maintain a belief that the initiative will happen eventually, then it is hard to expect your colleagues to form that belief. My experience has been that persistence and patience usually pay dividends at some point.  Some of the projects I am currently working on took nearly three years to take hold, with a change in management and current events helping drive a greater sense of urgency.  To my counterparts in NAEM and elsewhere – keep a smile and keep on plugging away!

About Bruce Klafter

Bruce Klafter is Vice President of Corporate Social & Environmental Responsibility at Flextronics International, where he provides leadership and strategic guidance for the company’s global operations. Prior to assuming this role, Mr. Klafter directed Applied Material’s EHS and sustainability programs and began his career as a distinguished environmental and natural resources lawyer.

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  1. Scott

    May 23, 2012

    Bruce, very good points and an excellent reminder for us to stay positive with our persistence and avoid negative behaviors like complaining, judgement or blame. My initial response to the your quiz was “the ability to enroll others”. After reading through your piece, I also thought when working without a net, related tool is the ability to take strategic risks, expending your personal capital, as needed, to enroll key decision makers and leaders.

  2. Mike Elliott

    May 25, 2012

    Thanks Bruce…a thought provoking article. For more on the subject of effecting change, I highly recommend “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. It suggests that cultural change, or personal change for that matter, requires three main components: 1) intellectual direction, 2) emotional motivation, and 3) creating a conducive environment for change. The book has more specifics…well worth the read.

  3. Bruce: Thank you, as always, for your optimism and the the “can do” spirit that you bring to the table. I also believe that it doesn’t hurt to have the willingness to question current assumptions, critical thinking and strong communication skills….all which you continue to demonstrate in your GreenTie blog posts.

  4. Bruce Klafter

    May 25, 2012

    Thanks for the comments. I’ve read the Heath’s book “Switch” and highly recommend it as well. One other free resource to check out is an excellent report prepared by the Network for Business Sustainability entitled “Systematic Review: Organizational Culture”. You can find it here: Don’t be put off by the academic title, it’s a very readable summary of a lot of interesting work on culture change and presents a nice framework. Bottom line – there is no getting around the fact that true culture change requires hard work and patience. Many of our achievements in the corporate world are significant and should be celebrated, but the jury is still out as to whether those achievements are ephemeral or are evidence of real shifts in thinking.

  5. Carol says: “… I also believe that it doesn’t hurt to have the willingness to question current assumptions, critical thinking and strong communication skills… .”

    To that I give two thumbs up. A positive attitude is an asset, but it is not essential. The three characteristics that Carol mentions are.

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