The green whisperer

She is supposed to talk about sustainability in a company that isn’t sure sustainability is a serious topic.

She’s probably not working in one of those companies that has labeled itself as a loud-and-proud sustainability leader. Her company is still thinking it over.

Her company values its credibility and integrity. It is horrified at the thought of “greenwashing,” of making environmental and sustainability claims that just aren’t true (or meaningful).  Her company is so eager to avoid greenwashing that it has languished in the opposite trap, “greenmuting.”  While others speak and make claims, her company is silent.  It leaves the field open to competing companies who do greenwash.  Even when it does good things, her company hesitates to say much about them for fears of greenwashing. Even if outsiders criticize the company, its responses are muted at best, reflexively defensive at worst.

The green whisperer’s job is to quietly fill that gap of silence.  She has to move her company from defensive silence to quiet, credible presence. She has to help her company find its voice.  In the process, she has to help her company figure out what part of sustainability is a serious business issue worthy of attention, and what part should be minimized or ignored. And she has to do all this quietly, without frightening off business leaders and without coming across as naive.

It’s a serious leadership role.  It’s a serious change management role.  And in many companies, this role is being played by relatively young women and men (it seems about two-thirds are women), early in their careers and low in their organizations.

From company to company, there are real differences among the green whisperers. They may be in different functions: Environment, Sustainability, Philanthropy, Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Communications, even R&D. They may have different backgrounds: degrees in engineering, MBAs, sustainability degrees, experience in business or NGOs or coming straight out of school. They may have gotten into their roles in different ways: hired from outside specifically for sustainability, volunteered for it internally, been drafted (“they said we need to do a report, go figure it out”), or have worked hard to get the role created.

There are some striking similarities, though.  In many companies, the green whisperer is under-supported and overexposed.  She is an outlier, an agent of change in a conservative company. She is an upstart in a hierarchical company: she is expected to discuss difficult topics with people 2, 3 or even 4 levels above her. At first, many in the business will not take her or her role seriously: she is likely to get as much condescension as coaching.  She may have a champion well above her in the organization, but that champion is often not in her chain of command and almost certainly not her direct boss.  She may have internal support for the environmental part of her role, but the outside world expects her company to address the social side of sustainability as well. While she may not get enough coaching herself, she has to coach her entire company, gently coaxing it to face some of its biggest challenges and opportunities.

The green whisperers find different ways of coping.  They learn from experience and keep coming back for more. They find unlikely supporters across their organizations.  They build credibility step by step, gaining a little ground each time a customer praises a report to the CEO or a salesperson finds that her work helped them get a foot in the door. Increasingly, the green whisperers find each other across companies, bonding over their shared challenges and matching scars, and supporting each other.

Will these green whisperers succeed or fail, thrive or even survive? Will they turn out to be lions, leading from below and helping take their companies to new levels?  Or will they turn out to be sacrificial lambs, their careers offered up in a token corporate effort to pretend to take sustainability seriously?

Based on the green whisperers I know, I’d put my money on them becoming lions.  The path won’t be easy and it sure won’t be linear.  But before they’re done, these green whisperers are going to roar loudly.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]   

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