The Most Important Weapon in the Sustainability Toolbox

Bruce Klafter
May 23, 2012
Pop Quiz: What is the most important skill sustainability professionals need to do their job?

An understanding of life-cycle analysis? The ability to calculate a greenhouse gas inventory? A command of climate science? Experience with kaizen, poke yoke and genchi genbetsu (all Japanese supply chain management concepts)?

In my humble opinion, the most important and oft-used tool is an optimistic outlook. The reason for this somewhat surprising conclusion is that sustainability managers are typically working to exert influence across an organization, which may mean working without authority or as I like to say "working without a net".

In the job descriptions I've written for the sustainability family at my company, this trait is referred as "a positive attitude and passion for sustainability." A number of organizations that have taken a more exhaustive and scholarly approach to identifying job skills have also singled out "passion", "enthusiasm" and a "positive attitude" as a key skills or attributes for people working in this emerging field. For more information, you may refer to studies from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association.

When confronted with our colleagues' protests that they lack the time, the resources, the bandwidth, or simply the interest to support a sustainability initiative, what is the best response?

My thesis is that a negative response (e.g. expressing disappointment, anger, exasperation) is never the right response. After all, if the sustainability team cannot maintain a belief that the initiative will happen eventually, then it is hard to expect your colleagues to form that belief. My experience has been that persistence and patience usually pay dividends at some point. Some of the projects I am currently working on took nearly three years to take hold, with a change in management and current events helping drive a greater sense of urgency. To my counterparts in NAEM and elsewhere — keep a smile and keep on plugging away!


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About the Author

Bruce Klafter
Bruce Klafter is Vice President of Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility at Flextronics International, where he provides leadership and strategic guidance for the company's global operations. Prior to assuming this role, Mr. Klafter directed Applied Material's EHS and sustainability programs and began his career as a distinguished environmental and natural resources lawyer.

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