By Stephan Dilchert, Ph.D., Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, City University of New York
If you found your way to this website you probably don’t require persuasion that environmental sustainability should be a goal, even for most for-profit businesses. Similarly, the MBA students in my sustainable business courses don’t need to be convinced that environmental responsibility should be one of their guiding principles. Many have chosen this path not only out of a sense of personal obligation, but also because they know that “being green” makes good business sense.
What, then, are the lessons we want our future leaders to experience before they take the helm of some of the world’s most impactful organizations?
Other contributors in this series on the Green MBA have discussed the skills organizations are seeking among new hires for sustainability-related positions. These skills are indeed critical, and some are underdeveloped in traditional business school curricula. However, beyond these skills, I believe sustainability-minded executives need a fundamental understanding of the role that the entire workforce plays in maximizing the triple bottom line.
“People make the place”
When you think about the myriad ways in which organizations can reduce their environmental footprint – what do the many initiatives have in common? For many, conservation and emission reduction immediately come to mind. A resource-focused approach only paints part of the picture, however. Going from passive to active sustainability efforts, from lagging to leading indicators of environmental performance, requires more complex thinking and deeper involvement. Inventing more responsible products, encouraging customers to look beyond price point to long-term impact, and redesigning workflows and processes to achieve net-zero impact – who does all of that?
It is true that in some cases, such as the inspirational example of the carpet manufacturer Interface, the impetus of organizational transformation comes from the top. However, the best leaders (such as Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface), recognize that everyone in their organization must set out on the path of sustainability. The pursuit of any mission, economic or environmental, requires an actively engaged workforce. It isn’t the organization that acts – it’s its people. Or, as work psychologists have put it, “people make the place.”
Picking the higher-hanging fruit
Employees play an important role as organizations try to go beyond the easy wins of environmental performance. Kross and Kitazume are correct in concluding that “the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of sustainability solutions has already been captured.” Even skeptics of global warming will implement resource conservation policies and retrofit their facilities if it positively impacts their bottom line. However, sustained success requires harvesting the higher-hanging fruit: only through consistent engagement, proactive and hard work, and sometimes personal sacrifice can we move toward low-impact economic activity in most sectors. Moving beyond cost savings requires fresh ideas, commitment, and execution of environmental initiatives on a large scale. For this, the entire workforce and leaders who know how to engage them are required.
The pivotal role of employees
In research conducted in collaboration with my colleague Deniz Ones and her team, we set out to explore the variety of ways in which employees contribute to organizational environmental performance. After surveying more than 50,000 employees and conducting more than 600 in-depth interviews in 15 countries, we classified the many workforce efforts into five broad categories:
- Conserving: Employees participate in organizationally sponsored and self-initiated efforts to reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle resources.
- Preventing and reversing environmental harm: Employees engage in active prevention of harm to the environment by following proper procedures, monitoring the environmental impact of their work activities, and participating in initiatives that offset the impact of organizational activities.
- Innovating and changing for sustainability: Employees change how they work by embracing innovation, redesigning work processes, and inventing new, more sustainable products. Employees are the drivers behind workplace changes that foster sustainability.
- Influencing others: Employees encourage and support co-workers and customers to pursue environmental goals, and participate in formal training to increase their own and others’ relevant knowledge.
- Taking initiative: At the most committed level, employee environmental performance involves not only participating but initiating programs, lobbying for environmental goals inside and outside the organization, and sometimes even putting environmental interests above one’s own.
The well-rounded, green MBA
In addition to expertise in areas that are at the core of sustainable business (supply chain management, reporting practices, issues of certification, et cetera), MBA programs must teach the various ways in which workforces can be attracted, selected, trained, and motivated to maximize the entire spectrum of pro-environmental behaviors. So how do we do this at the Zicklin School of Business? By broadly infusing people-related topics into our sustainable business curriculum in courses such as green organizational behavior, corporate culture and sustainability, or social entrepreneurship.
At the same time, as we stress the importance of these topics in the Green MBA curriculum, we must not think that this emphasis will lead to a “softening” of business education. On the contrary – like cutting-edge HR practice, which is driven more and more by talent analytics and the use of big data, people-based sustainability efforts can be quantified and their success measured. Organizations that are at the forefront of talent analytics are using this approach to increase environmental performance. For example, on its annual employee survey, Procter & Gamble has included questions to assess awareness of the company’s sustainability goals as well as employees’ performance of the relevant, pro-environmental work behaviors. Others, such as Aveda Corporation, use traditional HR tools of recruitment and employee selection to proactively compose a workforce whose members are aligned with the company’s socio-environmental mission.
Working through such cases in our MBA curriculum leads our students to intuitively understand the role that people play in pursuing environmental goals, and to acquire the specific skills needed to manage talent in the pursuit of sustainability. Our hope is to educate future leaders who are not only aware of the interconnectedness of people, planet, and profit – but who also know how to achieve it in their management practice.
Stephan Dilchert is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, City University of New York, where he teaches people-focused sustainability courses in the Sustainable Business MBA and Executive MBA programs. His research focuses on staffing and personnel decision making to increase organizational productivity and sustainability. Most recently, he published a practitioner-oriented handbook on Managing Human Resources for Environmental Sustainability, co-edited with Professors Susan Jackson (Rutgers) and Deniz Ones (University of Minnesota).
[Image credit: MQF]