Corporate roles, personal journeys

I recently brought together seven colleagues for a ‘Micro Forum’ in Chicago, IL to share their strategic and organizational perspectives. It became a vivid reminder of the very human side of our work relationships.

All the participants were VP-level leaders in corporate environment, safety, sustainability and/or energy functions. They came from a wide range of companies and sectors from transportation to health care and technology to household-name consumer products. They shared many of the same strategic and organizational challenges. Behind those, though, they each had very unique personal journeys.

For seven people in roughly the same roles, the range of their stories was fascinating. Some were lifers, with their whole career in one company. Others were in their third or fourth or fifth company – in one case, just within the last five years. Some had spent their whole career in the same function but with different companies, while others had been in multiple functions in one company.

They were at very different stages of their careers. Some were nearing the final lap. When asked what they hoped their personal story would be three years from now, some were hoping to be gone from their companies, retired – but they still had things to accomplish before going. Others had one last big initiative – or promotion – in their sights before retiring. Their journeys over the next few years involve choices about timing, negotiating exits (if they expected to have any say in it), geography and what to do next.

Others were entering the prime of their careers. They faced choices about balance: balancing families and work, balancing the ambitions to move up (which might mean leaving their functional area) with the ambition to do more within their function (which might limit promotions).

They opened up to each other. Some had only met over dinner the night before. Others only met when they walked into the conference room at 8:30 that morning. By 10:30 they were sharing. By noon they were asking each other for advice.

I had the great opportunity to sit and listen. Several things jumped out at me:

  • How committed they are. Despite setbacks and frustrations, all deeply care about helping their companies do better at protecting their people, communities and the environment. All are genuinely proud of their accomplishments. None of them sit in the C-suite, but they are leaders, truly leading from below.
  • How valuable this was. “Peer-to-peer” isn’t just a technology file-sharing geek term, it’s an important human concept. These can be lonely roles. The participants quickly realized they were sitting with genuine, smart, trustworthy peers. There was a clear sense of relief in the room, as people opened up, asked for help with real problems and offered support.
  • How hard it is to be proactive about your career. These bright, realistic people spend a lot more time planning for their companies and programs than for their own careers. They know they need to be prepared for what may come, both opportunities and disappointments. Those in mid-career know that no jobs (or even companies, these days) are secure. Those late in their career know that windows may be closing and options may be narrowing. Yet they struggle to find the time and mental space to create the options they want rather than waiting to react to what happens.

Most importantly, I was reminded that everyone we deal with has their own personal journey behind their organizational role. It’s all too easy to fall into dealing with them solely in terms of their roles, without understanding (or caring or helping) with their personal journeys. I convened a bunch of corporate officials. I spent valuable, affirming time with a room full of people. That was a healthy reminder, especially this time of year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners. To share this post, see additional posts on my blog or subscribe please go to I also invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.]

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.]   

Scale up

That’s my New Year’s resolution: Scale up.

Huh? Aren’t New Year’s resolutions supposed to be about scaling down? Pledging to reduce your weight, consumption (or carbon footprint)?   Yes, those are the traditional resolutions. Personally I should probably consider all of them.

But my main focus this year is going to be on scaling up, not down: scaling up positive impact. My resolution is to help create a step change in real outcomes affecting sustainable social and economic development.

That may seem just a bit presumptuous.  However, I don’t think I have to do it alone; in fact, I know I can’t do it alone. That’s the whole point.

My reasoning is simple: The sum of all the great one-off projects in corporate sustainability reports and the green press isn’t enough to move the needle.  For every one success we talk, there are 99 other times it didn’t happen.  That ratio has to change.

The need to focus on “scaling up” clicked for me last summer, at a session led by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD). After the meeting I blogged about the challenge of scaling up, of –

…driving improvements of 10X instead of 10%. … How do you bring about that level of change? Partly through great projects, great examples; you have to start somewhere, you have to figure it out, prove it, show it, do it. Absolutely. But to get scale, you have to do more. You certainly have to do more than you can do yourself. Personally, I’m pretty sure I can do 10% more by working harder or smarter. I’m very sure I can’t work 10 times harder or smarter.

There is no shortage of great needs and great ideas.  The challenge is connecting them up, getting the great ideas off the ground and up to scale with the needs.

There’s lots of good work going on around scaling up, working from the top down (starting with policy).  For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has focused its Action 2020 agenda on broad efforts to achieve scale. Within many companies, the focus is shifting to functions like procurement, with greater leverage over multiple partners in the supply chain. The focus on supply chain in the Global Reporting Initiative’s recent G4 guidelines’ certainly helps that effort.

Another route for scaling up is to work from the bottom up (starting with projects) instead of the top down.  Many who’ve done successful projects got them done by ignoring organizational issues.  To scale up, they have to find ways to work with (or around) those same issues. To go from one great project to a great corporate-wide process takes different approaches. To go from one new “green” product to a whole portfolio of low impact, high value products takes different approaches.

Some companies and practitioners have found ways to do this.  For example, General Motors now points out that

  • “We have 105 landfill-free facilities – more than any other automaker
  • “We recycle or reuse nearly 90% of our worldwide manufacturing waste”

That didn’t happen by accident.  Great projects were scaled up.

If we can harvest and harness the lessons of those who’ve succeeded in scaling up sustainability work, we may be able to help make that step change in impact.

To help with that learning, the US BCSD is devoting a portion of its annual meeting in February to just that kind of scaling up: “from great projects to great impact.”  We’re going to devote a big chunk of the meeting to hands-on sharing and learning about scaling up across multiple companies and sectors.

Come join us. Bring your successes and your frustrations. Or if you can’t attend, share your thoughts, challenges and lessons about scaling up.  You can post comments here or email me directly.

And maybe having greater positive impact can be one of your resolutions, too.

Happy New Year!

[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.]  

Celebrating the “leading from below” Revolution

Every now and then it’s nice to reflect back on a holiday, rather than just enjoying the picnics and fireworks — or going to sales or back to sleep.

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US.  We celebrated the Declaration of Independence, the start of a war, the birth of a nation.  (In the holiday spirit, let’s leave aside that the war started a year earlier and the nation was really born 13 years later.) We celebrated a nation throwing off control from above and taking its destiny in its own hands.

There’s another interpretation of what we celebrated. It’s not the one we were taught in school or find in history books, even the best contemporary ones.*  It’s an interpretation that won’t surprise readers of this blog who know my interest in “leading from below.”

When we commemorate the 4th of July, 1776, we’re really celebrating the success of leading from below. For 10 years before 1776, that’s where the American Revolution was led from: below.  For 10 years, the revolutionary flame was kept alive and spread by people you’ve probably never heard of, people often dismissed as “mechanics and artisans”.  They wrote the letters, organized the committees, summoned and managed the demonstrations (affectionately called “mobs” in most history books), doing the dirty work of fighting complacency. They even built an inter-colonial network in an intra-colonial world.

July 4, 1776 was when those “above” in the American colonies belatedly signed up to take the lead. We know their names.  We have seen them in history books, on statues and stamps and school names.  They did great stuff, absolutely.  They took great risks, and some reaped great rewards.  But they did so only after the revolution from below prepared the way, built the foundation, and made it almost impossible not to step up.  Take a look at all the “leaders” you think you know.  You’ll find that they spent most of the decade before July 4, 1776 doing anything but leading.  They spent those years going to college, building their plantations or law practices, living on government salaries or government contracts.

The real leaders weren’t nameless, faceless ciphers.  We know exactly who they were.**  They just don’t get much attention.  Most didn’t prosper after the Revolution.  Some didn’t even survive the war; they were much more likely to be at the front than fleeing with Congress.  They’re not remembered, with the notable exception of one who was enshrined in a poem (and he is remembered for that midnight ride, not for his years of political work before then).

Their reward didn’t come from what they got out of it later.  Their reward came from seeing the revolution they started get the acceptance from above it needed to spread and succeed.  Sometimes, that’s what it’s like when you lead from below. Sometimes you get the credit and advancement you earned, but not always. Sometimes you just have to take satisfaction from having made great changes happen that wouldn’t have happened without you.  And sometimes, that’s worth celebrating.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]


* A great example is Joseph Ellis’ excellent Revolutionary Summer (Knopf, 2013).  Talking about Pennsylvania in the run-up to July 4, 1776, he writes:

“…in a dazzling display of political agility, these mechanics, artisans, and ordinary farmers mobilized enough supporters to create a provisional government dominated by pro-independence representatives.”

But the only names Ellis mentions are Tom Paine (hardly an effective organizer) and the begrudging admiration of John Adams, one of the late-arriving leaders from above.

** For some of the best insight into these leaders from below, you can consult the works of Pauline Maier and David Hackett Fischer.