Sustainability: What about “values”?

I just published an article on “Helping business leaders talk about sustainability.”  The article focused on business “value,” with virtually no discussion of moral or ethical “values.” So am I a heathen or just a sell-out?

Neither, I hope.

In one of the first blogs I posted on this web site back in 2011, I wrote: “Remember both value and values. Any time you’re thinking about only one, you’re destined to fail one way or the other.”  I got some interesting comments then including:

  • “I strongly support … the focus on values driving value.” [VP corporate social responsibility, apparel]
  • “Value/value perspective [particularly interesting], as I do believe that to be the truth – when I have chased one without the other – I have not succeeded.” [CEO, marketing]
  • “I’m a big proponent of sticking to a core set of values that drives all decisions and actions.  Your values need to be your ‘rudder’ and there will be times that it results in sacrificing value or $.  I don’t see value and values as equals.  The old adage – stick to your values carries a lot of weigh in my book.” [VP HSE, manufacturing]
  • “Value and values should be the same.”  [Marketing executive]

So am I backing off of that exhortation to remember both value and values?  No. What I am doing is recognizing the realities of business, especially American business.

If there is a truly meaningful “values” conversation that your leadership engages in, and if you can be part of that conversation, fine.  But often there’s a Catch-22. If the conversation is open, it may not be the genuine, honest senior leadership conversation about values.  If it is that important conversation, it’s probably not going to be open to very many people.

Too often, the values conversation isn’t real. Many open discussions of values are more about internal branding than setting a moral compass.  Committees work to draft statements about “our values.”  More energy then goes to putting those values into a nice typeface than into putting them into action.

If the values conversation is real, getting into it is particularly tough for corporate sustainability leaders.  Given the nature of the sustainability role, many business leaders already have their shields up against their own staff preaching at them.

You have to earn the right to participate in those tougher values conversations by leading the simple, clear business value conversation first.

That’s all I’m saying. Think about value and values at the same time.  Talk about value first.

[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.]   

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.]  

Public ends, private means

Affordable student housing in a 12th century convent in Venice.  A food truck collaborative in a gritty Boston suburb.  Mobile-phone charging stations in Burkina Faso. This is sustainable development?

Yes.  This is exactly the frontier where new models for sustainable development are being created: unconventional, innovative projects to achieve public ends through private means.

These models come from optimism but also from frustration. The optimism reflects the belief that new things are worth trying. The frustration reflects the experience many have had trying to work around the limits of conventional models, including:

  • Private sector, especially the corporate world.  Society expects more and more from businesses.  But good intentions can be ground down by the complexities of fiduciary responsibilities and quarterly earning pressures. Investment is stranded in old business models – and even older organizational cultures.  We’ve seen good progress and sometimes great innovation from business, but the limits are real.
  • Public sector, in both the developed and developing worlds.  Even the world’s oldest democracies are seeing stalemate rather than statesmanship in addressing their biggest challenges. We’ve had to put hopes for public policy solutions off to the side; almost a sequestration of expectations.  At this point, we expect so much from business precisely because we expect so little from government.
  • Philanthropy and foundations.  They do great work, but they are often not in for the long haul.  They can be enormously helpful at getting something started.  Providing dependable, year-on-year baseline funding seldom fits their business model, though.  That makes sense – but only if what they help start has some other form of funding to remain viable.
  • Civil society and non-profits.  Many do amazing hands-on work to fill the urgent gaps, including feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. That work requires ingenuity to stretch scarce resources every day.  There is no surplus to invest in new models, not when that can be done only by taking food off the table at the soup kitchen.

All these sectors and models play needed roles but all have their limits.

Now we’re seeing fascinating work on creating and testing new models.  (In full disclosure, I should point out that some of this work is being done by my greatest mentors, intellectual partners and friends.)  This work is building unconventional approaches to:

  • Harness private means including capital, spirit, management rigor, creativity;
  • For public ends including interconnected concerns around economic development, jobs, environmental sustainability, housing, energy, diversity, transportation and education;
  • In financially-sustainable ways, breaking the dependency on undependable foundations, grants, government agencies.

One might almost call this nexus… truly sustainable development.  At the very least, it’s putting back in the missing “economic” piece in the sustainability “triple bottom line”.

What does this look like in practice?  There are lots of initiatives including micro-credit, transportation, energy financing and other areas. Three striking examples of different models can be seen in:

  • The Crociferi development in Venice, providing affordable student and faculty housing built on a base of a 12th century convent and tourism spending.   (The facility opened just a few months ago with publicly funded property investment and privately funded management.)
  • Projects around the world sponsored by the Low Carbon Enterprise Fund (a program of the ERM Foundation).  The Fund’s projects “provide finance and pro-bono technical and management support for low carbon entrepreneurs in the developing world”, ranging from fuel-efficient stoves in India to carbon-neutral, shade grown coffee in Latin America and Ethiopia.
  • A new project in Malden, Massachusetts aiming at local business development for immigrant communities based on co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing.

The people deeply involved in these experiments are asking tough questions themselves.  Isn’t each project its own “special case” and if so, how do we extract common lessons? Does sustainable financing depend on meeting both public and private ends? How do we scale up? How do we do enough to really matter when no one project is that large? Can we scale up without new forms of “hybrid capital?” Is “sustainable development” even the right label for all this, given how much economic impacts are overlooked in the sustainability world?

Where will this all go? I’m not sure.  Nor are the people driving these experiments.  I suspect it will be non-linear path, filled with twists and turns and setbacks and surprises both good and bad.  Then again, the people driving these experiments got where they are today on non-linear paths that ran through (among other things) railroads, economic development, boards of banks and consultancies, Native American crafts enterprises, and grass-roots political organizing. What the paths all have in common is a focus on broader pubic needs and experience in making things work in the private sector.  Maybe we should call it public yearning, private learning.

I’ll try to keep track of these experiments and share the lessons learned. (I’m already learning lessons just from the reading they’ve each suggested; see the mini-bibliography at the bottom of this blog.) I’m finding that these experiments are all about connection: connecting resources and needs, knowledge and challenges, opportunities and people willing to pursue them.  They are also about connection at a very personal level: reconnecting with old friends, connecting them with each other, and tapping the energy and creativity of much younger new friends being drawn in.  The path won’t be linear but it certainly will be interesting.

[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.] 


Connecting the Disconnected Executive

Many of us are suffering from Disconnnected Executive Syndrome (DES).  Regardless of what may show up in the CEO letter at the front of our corporate sustainability report, the CEO and the rest of the C-suite are largely disconnected from EHS and sustainability issues.  Fortunately, there’s a tool box that we’ve turned to over the years to help reconnect those executives.  For many of us, it’s time to go digging back through that toolbox, as well as listening for new ideas.

Looking backward, in some cases, it’s our own fault.  One of the biggest causes of DES is complacency born of success.  No crises, no attention.  As my CEO told me once back in my railroad days, “I haven’t seen you in my office in at least 6 months.  That must be good news.”  Some of my best work had been managing bad stuff so it didn’t escalate to a level warranting his attention.  By succeeding, had I failed?

It’s also our fault because we trained the C-suite to look at the numbers (and especially the numbers we thought we could influence most directly).  Injury rates are down, NOVs are down, waste is down, life is good.  Risk may be up, but the numbers are good – until they aren’t.

The economy is another good cause or at least accelerant of DES.  There are no secure CEOs and no secure companies.  No sector or region feels comfortably buoyant.  No one trusts public policy to leave well enough alone, let alone to help.  So the C-suite is in a state of permanent distraction.

And sometimes, it’s just time.  Messages, however compelling, get stale.  The half-life of a great internal campaign is probably about three years at best.  After that, the decay curve sets in, messages are tuned out, attention wanes, performance drifts downward.

What’s in the toolbox from before?

  • Get executives out walking around.  Even the best executives find themselves insulated in a world of meeting rooms and airports.  Walking around their own facilities and sites can often be an eye-opener.
  • Hijack an existing initiative for shock value.  Many companies periodically train and practice, even at the highest levels.  This may be around media training, preparing for Board or shareholder events, or more general emergency preparedness.  Hijack those efforts, make sure the scenarios and questions used make executives think about the right “what if” questions.  “Of course we’re world class [whatever that means], but what if X happens, how do I explain that?”
  • Change the numbers.  Show them some different numbers that look disturbing.  Those might be the rise in near misses, the drop in the average years-on-site for your personnel, the declining number of EHS professionals per 1,000 FTEs, anything to put some yellows and reds into the traditional traffic light slides, or some downward arrows where the executives aren’t used to them.
  • There but for the grace of God …” As our mayor here in Chicago used to say, never let a good crisis go to waste. When your competitor or customer or supplier or peer has a disaster (whether in West TX or Bangla Desh), make the most of it.  Brief the Board.  And when they say: “That can’t happen here, right?” don’t rush to reassure them.  That’s your opening.
  • Engage champions.  Sometimes we’re just tuned out or pushed out.  We have no real access.  Find someone who does.  Find the least likely and most compelling messenger – not your boss or someone from corporate communications, but a grizzled old manufacturing VP who has seen it all and has the respect of all.  If they say “we’re overconfident, we’re drinking our own bath water,” executives are more likely to listen.

What else is appearing in the toolbox now?  What’s emerging these days to help combat DES and reconnect executives?

  • Connect your customer’s executives to your executives.  Remember, you may be your customer’s problem.  Your counterpart may be struggling to get their EHS and sustainability messages through to their supply chain to reduce their risk.  That’s you; you’re somebody’s supplier.  Your executives may not listen to you – but they’ll certainly listen to their peers in a customer’s organization!
  • Tie your messages directly to the revenue stream.  Risk in general is a concern.  Risk to the revenue stream is an executive priority, especially in these markets.  EHS and sustainability leaders are reconnecting with executives by focusing on:
    • Risk to capital projects (“non-technical risk”).  Failures in these projects jeopardize revenues – so much that they also jeopardize share price and careers.
    • Risk to service revenue.  Many companies are tipping from making more in manufacturing to making more money in service. Much of that service takes place in your customers’ facilities.  Failure in your facility is bad enough.  Failure in your customer’s facility can stop this revenue growth in its tracks.
    • Opportunities and not just risks.  How can your services and performance reduce your customers’ EHS and sustainability risks and burdens?  Can you reduce their footprint?  Can you make their life easier?  Your sales VPs may be eager for something good to take to their customers, something that differentiates your business in a commoditized world.
  • Focus on one or two of the right numbers.  Showing your exposure on service or capital projects  or growth geographies may only take one or two numbers.  Throw out the rest of the deck and just show those.
  • Expose executives directly to your employees, especially the younger ones – both as employees and as leading indicators of the future marketplace.  Those employees care.  And they aren’t easily intimidated by management.

What’s not in the toolbox?  More PowerPoint or more data for its own sake. The disconnect isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional. Your executives are bright.  They get it. They just don’t think about it much.  If they do, they don’t think it’s their job to do something about it right now.  So don’t keep pounding the same old points and data. Focus on connection rather than cognition. Look for something that connects them emotionally.  Help make it their business.

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

Sitting here in (strategic) limbo…

Many of us are sitting here in limbo (with all due respect to the reggae management guru Jimmy Cliff).  Senior management faces an uncertain and uncomfortable economic outlook.  It’s not a recession, but it’s not really a recovery. It’s… limbo.

In response, many companies are trying to continue growing, but caution and even hesitation are growing too.  The feeling is far from smooth.  Companies aren’t taking their foot entirely off the accelerator.  But the other foot is simultaneously starting to tap the brakes.  Inside many companies, you can feel the friction, the drag, even some jerky starts-and-stops.

So what are EHS/Sustainability leaders supposed to do in this strategic limbo?  While they are “…waiting for the tide to turn… waiting for the dice to roll”?  Charging ahead seems risky.  But sitting still – and perhaps becoming a sitting target for cost-cutters – is even riskier.

Some EHS/S leaders are taking advantage of this strategic pause to refresh their programs and teams.  As I explained in a new article in the on-line EHS Journal, they’re taking five concrete steps:

  • Look backward: catch up with the changes that came at you too quickly.
  • Look forward: think about what’s coming.
  • Look to the bottom line: think about how you help the company make money.
  • Look inside your program: in light of the past transactions, future scenarios, and bottom-line impacts, what does your program need to do?
  • Look at your people: all of these actions may give you new insight into what your group needs to do and, therefore, what you need out of your team.

A client used this 5-step approach yesterday to help define his strategic priorities. We produced a practical action plan that will help him break out of strategic limbo – and may yield important improvements in his EHS/S programs in the coming year.

For the full article, and more insight into what some companies are doing, check out “Is Your Strategy on Pause?”

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

Communicating sustainability: the new PAR for the course

Last week I saw two very different groups wrestle with communicating sustainability.  One, made up of industry leaders and academics meeting in Austin TX, informed and impressed me.  The other, made up of 18- and 19-year-old students and their amazing teacher hard at work in Montezuma NM, blew me away.

The industry and academic folks were at the winter meeting of the US Business Council for Sustainable Development.  It was late in a day filled with heavy content on material reuse, post-consumer recycling, and water challenges.  We ran a session on “communicating sustainability.”  It was part hands-on planning and part catharsis.  Participants identified critical factors in successfully communicating about sustainability with people in their own organizations.

There were useful comments about “know the audience” and “find the right messenger”.  A chemical company manager made a great point about “action”: sustainability communication needs to lead to real actions that can be taken, not just arm-waving.  An innovative leader in by-product reuse (from a company that historically led the nation in bureaucracy) made an even more powerful point about “passion”: sustainability communication needs to come from and convey a real emotional component, and not just sit on the table as an abstract intellectual discussion.

I came away thinking, “That was a good session, some good take-aways, even some inspiration.”

Then came Montezuma.  A few days after the USBCSD session, I visited the UWC-USA campus and sat in on Ben Gillock’s environmental systems class. Ben’s class included students from around the world — I recall Malawi, Nepal, Trinidad & Tobago, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Texas and New Hampshire, and there were more.  He had them playing the parts of a wide range of developed and developing nations; I think the student from Nepal played Japan, and Malawi played China.  The students were role-playing a realistic multi-national climate change conference.  Negotiations were intense, rigorous, and fact-based.

Ben’s artful mix of data, technology, stage management and charisma kept the negotiations on target, while also fluid and fun.  The students wheeled, dealed and tried urgently to create workable solutions.

I heard some echoes from the USBCSD session: both passion and action were key to every negotiation.  But thanks to Ben, a third element ran through the whole class: respect.  As national representatives, the students respected their fellow-nations if they had any hope of being effective, staying alert to other nations’ economic needs and political realities.  As people, the students respected their fellow students, both within and across their teams.  The students clearly learned a lot.  I learned more.

Passion + Action + Respect.  “PAR.”  Not a bad set of rules to live by in communicating sustainability.  Or anything else.

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

Sustainable confusion

“Language gets in the way,” lamented a participant at a meeting of corporate EHS and sustainability officers. We had eagerly awaited insight from an annual survey that would tell us how CEOs’ views on sustainability have changed.  We were disappointed. In the prior years’ studies, we were told, participating CEOs had interpreted “sustainability” as “sustained growth”, rather than any of the broader issues we focus on.  As so often with sustainability, language had confused rather than clarified.

That “sustainable confusion” plagues well-intentioned efforts in many companies.  It is the growing gap between a sense of urgency to do something about sustainability and clarity around what it makes sense to do. Business leaders attempt to understand how sustainability affects their business, only to drown in a sea of terms and definitions.

For some, words and phrases like sustainability, sustainable development, sustainable business, global citizenship or corporate social responsibility are highly specific terms with distinct meanings.  For many, though, it’s mind-numbing gibberish.  (It hasn’t helped that sustainability has also become a branding issue. Companies, NGOs — and yes, even consultants — attempt to force-fit their issues into existing definitions or use different terms and definitions to differentiate their approach from others.)

The irony is that, beneath all the definitional mayhem, we are increasingly clear about the basics of sustainability for business. We know that sustainability:

  • Involves taking responsibility for environmental, social and economic impacts;
  • Means extending out the time range of impacts you consider, and bringing forward your responsibility to act on those impacts;
  • Reflects growing expectations on business to address these impacts (as skepticism grows about government’s ability to do so);
  • Includes both a business’ own operations and its offerings to its customers, not one or the other;
  • Requires fitting these issues into your business, not bolting sustainability on as an after-thought;
  • And is a journey more than a destination.

But somehow the language keeps getting in the way.

There is a path toward sustainable clarity.  It’s around getting the substance right first, and only then worrying about the wording.

Late last year, a client wanted to update their sustainability strategy including a definition of sustainability.  For months, the client struggled to come up with a definition that would make sense to everyone from their Board of Directors to work crews on the ground. Meeting after meeting, the definition refused to be wrestled to the ground.  Each version prompted dozens of more edits. Each added word reduced the clarity of the definition.

Then the client decided to put the definition aside and focus on what was important for their business.  Suddenly, once the strategy was clear, the definition fell into place.  The client team knew what they were talking about.  They turned that substance into a few clear, credible and compelling sentences.  When they took their strategy to their C-suite earlier this month, they only needed two pages.  The first was their definition of sustainability at their company and the proposed strategy, distilled down to a single page of text.  The second page was a single PowerPoint slide (yes, slide, not deck) to show how the strategy meshed with some complex organizational roles and responsibilities.  They won approval from the C-suite on the spot.  Now the team is working on actions rather than definitions.

Substance drove language, not the other way around.   That’s sustainable clarity.

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

New Year’s resolutions for sustainability and strategy professionals

As a sustainability or strategy professional, you probably have too many commitments for 2012 already.  But in case you’re in the market for a few more, here are ten suggested New Year’s resolutions for sustainability and strategy professionals:

1. Think about the long term – and act in the short term with that long-term perspective in mind.

2. Remember the “economics” leg of the sustainability stool – and not just your own economics.  All our progress in social and environmental issues won’t be good enough, if we get the economics wrong.  Dying communities, disappearing jobs and bankrupt suppliers don’t add up to a sustainable future.

3. If you think you’re leading, make sure someone’s following.  Leaders with no followers aren’t leading, they’re just wandering.

4. Don’t confuse reporting with doing. Transparency is important, but results are more important.

5. Think about strategy before it’s time.   If you wait until it’s time, it’s too late.

6. Don’t confuse journalism with history.  What happened in the last 24 hours may be fascinating, but a year from now it may be the answer to a trivia question.

7. Don’t confuse history with planning. It’s nice to have data, but by definition data is backward-looking.  Driving at the speed business moves at now, it’s important to look through the windshield more than at the rear view mirror.

8. Review your plans honestly. Before you ask others to sign up, ask yourself: Is my proposal big enough to matter, small enough to be accomplished, and if we do it – will it really make a difference?

9. Remember both value and values. Any time you’re thinking about only one, you’re destined to fail one way or the other.

10. Do better on your “work-work balance”.  Yes, that was supposed to be “work-life” or “work-family”.  A colleague recently caught himself in that genuine Freudian slip.  It’s a handy reminder for 2012.  My children are now in their late twenties. I don’t hear anyone my age saying: “Darn, I wish I’d spent one more Saturday at the office”  (or “one more family dinner on my BlackBerry”).

Best wishes to all for a happy, healthy, more strategic and sustainable 2012.

“Don’t worry about job security…. You’re self-employed.”

1999 was a long time ago — at least two tsunamis, two recessions, several wars and multiple terrorism events ago.  Pundits hadn’t yet declared the world flat, and the biggest technology challenge we faced was the doomsday forecast for Y2K.  1999 was so far back that Apple only made computers then.

In April of that year, ERM held its first Business Integration Forum, kicking off a decade-long series of client events on three continents.  To wrap up that first Forum, James Kelly (a respected expert in management and then an ERM Board member) led a discussion on organizational and personal transformation.  Looking forward, he presciently told the 28 corporate environmental Directors and VPs:

“The business models that emerge will be…more connected but less rigid.  We will be more free to define our own jobs and make our own connections.  We will also be required to make our own connections.  Within our corporations, we will move from a concept of employment to one of self-employment – both in internal and external marketplaces.”

That’s not the future any more; that’s reality.  Hundreds of corporate EHS (environment, health and safety) leaders participated in our Forums in the decade after 1999. I’ve gone back recently to look at what’s happened to some of them since.  Some have retired, of course.  Some have remained in the same positions. Some have flourished, and are leading EHS or Sustainability programs in bigger or more dynamic companies, or are Senior Vice Presidents in the same company.  Others – respected colleagues and good friends –are on the job market.

What differentiates those who flourished from those who struggled?  On the surface, that is hard to answer. These people were all smart and hard-working; that doesn’t separate them.  Certainly some were luckier than others; good people had bad things happen to their companies through no fault of their own.  So I looked for different factors that might explain the different outcomes.

The biggest differentiator, I found, is who seized the initiative, defined their own jobs and made their own connections.  By and large, the EHS leaders who have flourished are those took on more challenges, who built new networks both inside and outside their companies, and who pushed themselves to tackle issues well outside their technical comfort zone.  For some, that meant creating their own luck, leaving seemingly comfortable jobs rather than waiting for events to dictate their career.

EHS leaders now are facing a period when defining their jobs may be mandatory, not optional.  As I wrote in an article just posted on the EHS Journal, the EHS VP may be an endangered species in the US.  The survivors are likely to be those EHS leaders who shape and embrace the emerging hybrid models that combine EHS skills with other pressing business opportunities or risks.

I don’t pretend this is easy.  In 2009 I “fired” myself from ERM’s global leadership team to carve out a role as a full-time ERM consultant.  I made a conscious decision to stay with ERM but in a different role. There was no clear precedent or path for returning to full-time consulting after giving up my clients, projects, teams and sales pipeline.  I had to define my job and build new connections. Taking my own medicine wasn’t fun.  Even with strong management support, it was hard and scary.  (Along the way, I learned some useful lessons that I’ll share in a future blog.)

As I felt all too clearly, the risks of making changes with our jobs and careers are daunting.  “The reality, though, is that the risks of not changing are probably greater,” as James Kelly said back in 1999. “Don’t worry about job security.  There is no job security.  You’re self-employed.”

Opinions on this site are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of ERM, its partners or clients.