Submitted by Shannon Houde
Communication comes up again and again in analyses of key competencies for sustainability leadership. Being able to build bridges between science and business, between the finance department and the sales department, between NGO concerns and board-level strategy, and then, get everyone moving forward across the bridge in sync. These are the tasks of a Sustainability Influencer, and they don’t come easily!
Pretty much every job description ever written for a senior exec sustainability/impact role has included communications in the list of essential skills. Just search for ‘communications’ in my blog and you’ll see all the Hot Jobs that come up – and these are just the ones with communications in the title!
But what do we mean by communication? Certainly, there’s more to it than simply being able to write, speak, or present. And more to it than the feared “greenwashing.” The best Sustainability Influencers combine empathic connection, personal passion, clear thinking, and creative expression, with a solid understanding of the business and a scientific grounding in what it truly means to be sustainable. This is why, when sustainability people talk about communication, it’s more than a skill – it’s an art.
Would Marks and Spencer’s Plan A have had half the success without the charismatic statements of Mike Barry? Would Kering’s groundbreaking Environmental Profit and Loss Accounting project have gotten the recognition it did without the clever visual thinking that framed the company’s environmental footprint in one simple graphic?
Great communications are bold, inspirational, memorable, genuine…and they have impact. To me, there are three Top Communications Skills a sustainability influencer has to have, and each one has a different, but equally important, function:
Great translators: Much of the work of a sustainability leader involves linking the priorities of external stakeholders to day-to-day embedded practices that internal stakeholders can embrace. This requires having expertise and credibility on both the issues side of the fence and the business side, and – crucially – the ability to break down the jargon between them. The best Sustainability Influencers have an innate ability to act as translators to ensure all stakeholders are on the same page and working together with a common understanding for a common goal. This means working cross-functionally to reach key employees “on their terms” or to know how to make the lingo of the technicalities of sustainability more approachable to the layman. “If you know your audience - truly know your audience - then it becomes easier to appeal to them,” says Paul Crew, Head of Sustainability at Sainsbury’s. “You can home in on their passions and you can even mirror them to grow this passion across the company.”
Great connectors: A Sustainability Influencer needs to be a change agent who is capable of inspiring others and transforming corporate culture from the inside out. This means knowing how to build trust and influence people in order to get them on-side. The ability to frame a challenge in win-win terms is fundamental to ensuring strong, effective collaboration. As Mike Barry of M&S once put it,
“You’ve got to be able to get alongside people who are under tremendous pressure in a very difficult working environment and say, ‘we’ve gotta change, guys’. Negotiation, influence, the ability to put an arm around somebody’s shoulder and say ‘Come on a journey with me’ – these things are critical.”
Great listeners: This one may surprise you, but the ability to listen actively and with empathy is one of the most important skills in a Sustainability Influencer’s toolkit…or in the human toolkit really. It underpins all the other communications skills, rooting them in the thick of the human experience, and ensuring that they are built on a foundation of sincerety, transparency and respect. As Lora Phillips, Symantec Corporation’s Senior Manager of Global Corporate Responsibility says,
“Communications are most effective at engaging stakeholders when those stakeholders feel there is an opportunity for their voice to be heard, or for them to influence the outcome in some way. So it’s not just about Symantec telling people what we’re doing, but it’s about listening to diverse opinions and giving our stakeholders — especially employees — a sense of ownership in outcomes.”
Being a great translator, a great connector and a great listener may sound like a tall order, but Sustainability Influencers are doing the toughest job on the planet, trying to save the planet and us humans, from ourselves. If you want to land your dream impact role, take my advice get to work on honing the art of your communications. And if you need some bespoke support figuring out exactly how to enhance your offer, get in touch.