The Sustainability Insurgency: Missives from the Front Lines, Part 2

The second in a periodic series of interviews with executives from the trenches of the Sustainability Insurgency, reinventing CSR and sustainability leadership.

For our two-part post, I spoke with Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions at the California-based Autodesk.

In the last post, we saw how Dr. Stewart pursued the Sustainability Insurgent’s tasks of relating externally to capture valuable social intelligence, and relating internally to build a network of allies in the functions and departments vital for Autodesk’s sustainability performance.

In this post, we see Dr. Stewart translating social intelligence, incubating functional sustainability initiatives and acculturating business units to sustainability decision making.

Translating

One of the challenges facing sustainability insurgents is that their positions don’t automatically come with decision-making authority. To make progress internally, they have to influence without authority by becoming masters at translating sustainability insights into a dialect that resonates with their managerial colleagues.

This can be a challenge because of the oft-bleak rhetoric employed by environmentalists and social activists. According to Stewart, “I’ve found that if you hammer people with, ‘Global energy demands will double by 2030,’ and ‘Water shortages are going to hit every major city in the next 30 years,’ … their eyes get wide, and then glaze over, and you’ve just disempowered them.”

To inspire needed action, sustainability insurgents contextualize issues in terms of their impact on the market and the possible opportunities that it might offer for the company.

In speaking to colleagues, Dr. Stewart says, she might point out, “Look, this is just going to become a reality. Here are the regulations and standards that suggest as much. Here are the corporate mandates that are codifying this. So, here’s our upside…our total addressable market, and … ” — importantly for succeeding as a sustainability insurgent — “ … here’s the skin in the game that we’re willing to offer to get it started.”

It is important to be specific when approaching colleagues, employing data and intelligence gained from relating externally. “Vagueness,” says Stewart, “has been the enemy of CSR for a long time.” Corporate sustainability generalities discussed in the press don’t help colleagues understand what it means for the business.

Stewart thus works hard to be precise in defining sustainability for a given functional colleague: which industry targets are most compelling for their unit and exactly what sorts of sustainability opportunities they should go after. She also avoids making grandiose claims about the company’s sustainability performance, relying instead on market data and verifiable facts.

Incubating

With this approach, she has the credibly to translate external social intelligence for her functional colleagues and incubate action. But insurgents like Stewart know that incubating projects requires more than nudging mangers to act. They have to lead by taking action themselves. According to Stewart, insurgents can’t just cajole their colleagues but must “get in the trenches with them. Show them that you can help them, and make it feasible for them.”

An example of incubating a project is Autodesk’s Rapid Energy Modeling product. By reaching out to the financial community, Stewart and her team saw an opportunity to add an energy analysis function to the company’s architectural modeling software. A financial module would allow investors and professionals to predict the financial implications of energy upgrades.

While there was a market need, it required Autodesk to go beyond their existing engineering design expertise and was logically seen by some a risky move. According to Stewart, “There were people saying, We don’t know anything about financial analytics, and we don’t have any of the cost data.”

Stewart and her team helped tackle this problem by reaching out to their external contacts. Working with their product development peers, they identified datasets that, Stewart says, “live outside of our four walls.” By establishing collaborations with these other data providers, they were able to build an integrated energy and cost module with the potential to promote important improvements in the sustainability performance of the building sector.

Acculturating

The goal of sustainability insurgents is not one-off projects like Rapid Energy Modeling, no matter how great its impact on the planet or the bottom line. The objective is to acculturate the various business functions to incorporate sustainability dimensions into their decision making on their own. Successful projects demonstrate the value of social intelligence and empower functional managers to do more.

Remember the initially wary operations managers in the previous post, the ones for whom sustainability meant the laborious collection of data like utility bills for the company’s carbon footprint? Well, Stewart made sure that the operations group contributed to and piloted the Rapid Energy Modeling for Autodesk’s own buildings. According to Stewart, “It has their stamp all over it … the facility managers on the ground helped us validate it. And now customers are using it.”

Through the project, the operations team moved into the limelight, with their facilities acting as cutting-edge research centers. It shifted the typical perception of operations from a cost center to a contributor to Autodesk’s top line. According to Stewart, “It’s been a story of how, if you invert the equation and you turn these guys into heroes — because they’re enormously capable and knowledgeable, but they’ve just never really been asked to contribute to the core business — that can have enormous effects. And now you’re no longer in the nudging mode. Now they’re inspired and they’re running off, doing this on their own volition.”