VOX Global

July 26, 2012 14:09 ET

Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability From Inside Corporate America

Report by VOX Global, Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting and Net Impact, Berkeley Finds Corporate Sustainability Leaders Succeed Through Collaboration and Using the Language of Business

WASHINGTON, DC--(Marketwire - Jul 26, 2012) -  To be successful, corporate sustainability leaders avoid the jargon of sustainability when selling it inside their companies. Rather, the path to success is developed by understanding business objectives and using broad interpersonal skills to communicate social and environmental issues in the language business leaders will understand, according to a new report that surveyed more than 30 sustainability leaders representing both publicly and privately held companies.

"Trying to get people to think about sustainability, understand it, and then align our business strategy takes a lot of dialogue, discussion, and influencing skills," said John Gardner, Chief Sustainability Officer at Novelis. "You can be very bright and smart on sustainability and the science, but if you can't convince people why it makes good business sense, your initiative will go nowhere." 

The study -- conducted through a partnership between VOX Global, a Washington-based firm specializing in corporate sustainability consulting; Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting; and the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, Berkeley -- sheds new light on the skills, drivers, and internal collaboration strategies necessary for sustainability executives to find success. 

Thirty-two corporate sustainability leaders -- primarily from Fortune 100 companies -- participated in the online survey and included in-depth phone interviews with sustainability officers and senior executives at McDonald's, Novelis, AT&T, DuPont, EMC, Hilton Worldwide and Nixon Peabody LLP. 

"A significant part of my role is translating those social and environmental issues that intersect with our business in ways senior management can understand," said Kathrin Winkler, Chief Sustainability Officer at EMC. "Showing how they can either provide a competitive edge or respond to a customer demand is critical for success."

Charged with integrating a relatively new and evolving function within their company and generally operating with fewer resources than traditional business units, sustainability leaders say they primarily rely on interpersonal skills, rather than subject matter expertise. The study found that prior to taking their job, nearly three quarters of respondents thought subject matter expertise was the most important factor to be successful. But after being on the job, 100% of respondents stated interpersonal skills were the most important factor. 

"This study crystallized the fact that sustainability leaders are multi-lingual. Instead of selling sustainability inside their companies one hundred different times, they sell it one hundred different ways," explained Tony Calandro, Senior Vice President & Partner at VOX Global. "The secret sauce of success is balancing subject matter expertise with strong interpersonal skills -- leadership traits that are not easily developed." 

More important than senior executive buy-in, 81 percent of respondents stated that they rely instead on collaborating with colleagues and co-workers at all levels of the company in order to integrate sustainability throughout their organizations. This finding is even more significant given the fact that they have little to no management authority over these colleagues inside their companies.

Carolyn Kaplan, Counsel and Chief Sustainability Officer at Nixon Peabody LLP, stated, "On any given day, I might be demonstrating to a partner the link between a strong internal sustainability program and a client's core business, working with an office manager to implement a new sustainability procedure, or helping a secretary take advantage of energy savings opportunities."

Counter to conventional wisdom, the survey also found that traditional business drivers like customer pressures and competitors were significantly more influential in compelling change inside companies than external factors driven by NGO pressures, regulatory policies and sustainability rankings. 

"The report shows that interpersonal skills trump all and I have definitely seen that come through for my placements," said Ellen Weinreb, Managing Director of Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting. "While these skills are innate, the ability to hone and accelerate them while on the job is critical to their success."

Read the Executive Summary and Full Report of the survey at


VOX Global is a strategic communications and public affairs firm with significant experience navigating the intersection of business, media and society. Our Sustainability Practice Group helps position sustainability leaders and their companies for long-term success by providing services that help them achieve both a reputational and financial return on investment.

VOX Global is currently working with the Center for Sustainability at Saint Louis University to develop a unique executive training program that focuses on honing and sharpening the interpersonal skills needed for sustainability leaders to be successful.


Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting is a niche executive search firm, specializing in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Clients include Wal-Mart, Patagonia, Sears, Nestle Waters and Levi Strauss & Co. Weinreb Group publishes reports regularly about the CSR profession including, CSO Back Story, How Chief Sustainability Officers Reached the C-Suite. 


Net Impact, Berkeley, an undergraduate chapter sponsored by the Haas School of Business, provides consulting services to organizations in order to gain real world experience as a complement to their education.

Contact Information

    Beth Parker