The Sustainability Insurgency: Missives from the Front Lines, Part 1

The first 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 2008, after a career as an outside environmental consultant with BSR, Emma Stewart went “in-house” to become head of sustainability solutions at the software company Autodesk, where she founded the Sustainability Solutions team. One of her first acts was to reach out to the head of operations — an encounter that Stewart admits was “a little bit awkward.”

The chill she found is a common legacy of the traditional approach to CSR management, with its primacy on keeping external stakeholders happy. Like many companies, Autodesk had responded to stakeholder’s climate concerns by calculating their carbon footprint. In compiling a footprint, the CSR office needs detailed information from managers who usually don’t have it at their fingertips, and for whom such data can be a Herculean task to gather.

So it’s no surprise that when Stewart first encountered the head of operations, the response was, “This seems to be mostly a one-way relationship. What are you doing for my team?”

The encounter was transformational for Stewart’s approach to business sustainability. Instead of asking for things and cajoling her colleagues, Stewart decided to put sustainability in service of the business. According to Stewart, “Nudging alone does not work. If you … take the time to roll up your sleeves and show that something is feasible … and bring that back to the team, you have a much higher likelihood for success. And a lot more respect.”

Typical of the new generation of sustainability insurgents, Stewart found “that in order to be a legitimized contributor to the business, you have to be as smart or smarter about your customers or other stakeholders as other business units. If you make yourself indispensable … then whether or not you’re advancing sustainability… they want you in the meetings. And they want to give you some decision-making sway.”

Relate Externally: Gathering Social Intelligence

Being as smart or smarter requires gathering social intelligence, which Stewart made a priority. She and her team systematically called on leading customers and “market-shapers” like regulators, non-profits and financiers active in establishing their industry’s sustainability standards. As such, her team built a deep understanding of broader social and market context — social intelligence that they could translate back into the business.

This social perspective is invaluable because, as Stewart points out, “sometimes customers don’t really know what’s feasible … so by extending the scope of the people we talk to externally and then translating that internally, that gives further social and business intelligence to our colleagues in the different business units.”

The interviews helped compile a list of market visionaries with a track record of foresight into where sustainability issues were heading. “We have lunch with them regularly,” says Stewart. “In some cases I’ve even asked them [if] can I shadow them for a day … they’re kind of our scouts in the market.” Social intelligence is so important that her team has a rule that someone should be meeting with an influencer every single day of the week. “And I can tell you, we’re the only team in the company for whom that is true, with the exception of sales.”

Relate Internally: Cultivating Allies

To create value, social intelligence must be mobilized — and insurgent CSR directors do so by cultivating a network of internal allies.

For Stewart, the key is inspiration, which comes from the uncovered social and market insights. Being credible requires selecting projects with the greatest potential, then getting in front of senior executives and midlevel decision makers on a regular basis. According to Stewart, “We’re constantly hammering on, here’s the market need for this… this is why we want you to work with us.” Her team found that prototyping showed what was possible and allowed other managers to evaluate what resources the opportunity would demand. This “rapid prototyping” ethos eventually led her team to become a full-blown product team.

“We found that by essentially becoming part of the army and helping lead the charge, we’re now peers with these guys, rather than some ivory-tower CSR department whose sole job it is to collect data and ask favors of people,” Stewart notes. By leveraging social intelligence, Stewart was able to reverse the icy attitude some managers had about the sustainability function. “I’ve had a number of teams come to me and say, ‘Could you include us in some of your customer meetings?”

Relating and gathering social intelligence provides the foundation for the subsequent steps in the sustainability insurgency: translating insights into sustainability dialects that resonate with the target business functions, incubating projects that leverage the insights and acculturating the functions to incorporating sustainability intelligence into their daily decision making processes.

We’ll see how Dr. Stewart applied these approaches at Autodesk in the next installment in this series.

If you have experiences to share, contact Gregory Unruh at: gunruh@gmu.edu.