Connecting the Dots: Experiences of Chief Sustainability Officers

09/28/2016 | By Justin Feit

Learn from two CSOs how your experience can lead you to the C-suite

Sustainability carries more importance now than ever in facilities management because it’s become so distinctly connected with the bottom line. Efforts in sustainability can help businesses not only become more environmentally friendly, but they can also help reduce costs and develop a positive reputation.

Because buildings are often the easiest places to introduce sustainable practices and save energy, resources and money, many FMs are already taking on sustainability projects. Furthermore, working in sustainability can take place in a variety of arenas within a business, school, hospital or any other organization.

That’s where opportunity might present itself for the savvy FM. Typically operating at the top tiers of leadership within an organization, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is a position that has been developing in both the public and private spheres for over a decade and is still growing. In 2004, DuPont hired former EPA regulator Linda Fisher to take on sustainability efforts as CSO. DuPont was the first publicly traded company to name a CSO, and dozens of the world’s largest companies followed suit. That practice continues today in organizations of all sizes.

This position might go by other names (Director of Sustainability, Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility, etc.), but they are all positions that provide a level of executive input. But how do you become a CSO? And what if your institution has no position like this? What might seem to be roadblocks are actually part of the development of the position.

Kathleen Miller, CEO of Miller Consultants, and George Serafeim, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, produced research on the responsibilities and development of CSOs and found in most cases, the position of CSO only becomes an official role once sustainability efforts are already underway. This gives FMs a distinct edge in pursuing and developing the position.

Adding to that advantage is the fact that 86% of CSOs have been hired from within the organization, according to a study conducted by Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruitment agency. Kate Nelson, CSO at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), and Liz York, CSO at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are two sustainability executives who rose to their current positions through this form of internal promotion.

Early Stages

After working a series of jobs and internships involved in conservation, Nelson identified a growing need for comprehensive sustainability at her alma mater, UWM. “I started seeing that there were students doing environmental work, but they were all doing different things and weren’t working together. So I pulled them together to address the administration about this idea of environmental policy for the campus in 2006,” says Nelson. In 2008, the university took Nelson’s advice and put her at the forefront of a new sustainability program initially housed under the facilities department.

At roughly the same time, CDC was looking to boost their sustainability efforts. Looking for someone to specifically champion these efforts, they placed Liz York – an architect and project manager at the agency – as the Acting Chief Sustainability Officer. By the end of 2008, York took on the role of the first official CSO at CDC.

“The fact that our facilities department was already doing LEED buildings, recycling waste at building sites and utilizing green cleaning just shows there was a culture at CDC before the CSO position was even established,” York explains. The expansion of the sustainability program with an official leader at CDC was then a way to solidify the agency’s efforts.

Nelson and York both identified the need for fostering innovation and exemplifying how it positively impacts the organization and beyond. “If people who are doing the day-to-day work see how what we do in sustainability solves issues, they will buy into it,” Nelson explains.

York recalls one CDC employee who identified a paper-wasting process and developed an environmentally friendly solution. York’s office recognized the employee’s sustainability efforts as an opportunity to share their story to promote similar changes. “One of the things that my office does is look for stories like this,” York says, “and we award people with what’s called a ‘Sustainability Star.’ We do a write-up about what they’ve done, and that gets circulated. We found that it breeds more innovation and copycat projects. Someone reads the article, calls that Sustainability Star, and says, ‘Can you help me with my project?’”

One major aim of the position is to bring people and solutions together within an organization to promote positive solutions to setting-specific issues. York notes that the CSO is always in the process of “connecting the dots between the people who want a change and the people who can authorize or support the change,” even if it might run contrary to the way things have always been done.

“I look to build and strengthen community on the campus between staff, faculty, students and even community members,” says Nelson. “Almost on a daily basis, when we come up with an idea we try to solve multiple issues. We try to fold as many needs as possible into one solution.” In these efforts to connect people and solutions together, the more specific goals and methods towards sustainability can be approached.

Making Progress

Just as connecting people with each other and with ideas is part of the job, bringing together the ideas of experts is an important component of being a sustainability executive. “I need to understand the science, engineering and things like that, but I’m not going to be the expert in everything,” Nelson explains. “You just can’t be. You need to know how to bring people together who have expertise to solve problems.”

At CDC, York has brought in experts in a variety of fields to not only advise her on important projects, but they also go to individual departments to implement change on-site. “We focus a lot on reviewing and overseeing the annual sustainability plan,” York explains. “What is different is that the subject matter experts now work in the areas where the work is being done and have a dotted-line relationship to my office.”

With access to experts, York’s office seeks to find a way to communicate annual goals to the rest of the agency. The federal government releases executive orders outlining detailed sustainability targets and leaves it open to each individual agency to determine how to accomplish those goals. In order to help staff conceptualize CDC’s big-picture sustainability plan, York’s office developed “moonshot goals,” which are intended to develop solution-based ideas for everyone.

For example, instead of referencing the technical details of the executive order that CDC will use to achieve its sustainability goals, York generalizes the message to make it relatable to a wider audience. Instead of detailing how the agency will adopt more clean and renewable energy production each year, York has phrased it as “having solar energy production at all of our Atlanta-based campuses in the next three years” to free up the innovation process from the burden of abstract annual percentages.

“These are goals that people can identify with so they understand we’re trying to reach the moon with our sustainability goals,” says York. “In a way, you could call it an operational effort and a marketing effort at the same time because we are trying to build a culture of understanding about what we, as an agency, want to achieve.”

Communicating clearly in a way that suggests change is actually feasible is one of the keys to the job, according to both CSOs. Once this happens, momentum will build within the organization, and people will see it as a means to solving issues. “If people see a way to do something better, they will buy into that,” says Nelson. “And a lot of time what we try to do is make labor practices better, easier and less toxic.”

The changes that a sustainability program implements do not necessarily need to be drastic to work. As long as the aims are clear, impact can be big with small actions. “I can see anyone in an organization just tweaking the way they do things towards sustainability and getting far with something,” adds Nelson.

At UWM, some of the changes towards a more sustainable campus include stormwater contingency plans, community gardens and green infrastructure. There are even talks to include a brew garden to foster research opportunities in a distinctly Milwaukee way. With these projects, Nelson attempts to connect sustainability directly towards education by working with academic departments and student research projects.

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