The Business of IT10 Keys to Becoming an Environmental Leader

Michael Walsh and Eliza Walsh

It seems every company is talking about their environmental efforts. IT can play a key role in these efforts—creating a great opportunity for you to drive change and become a thought leader in your company and industry. But where do you start? Here are 10 keys to being an effective leader for environmental and sustainability initiatives.

Familiarize Yourself with the Issues

The first step is to develop broad and deep familiarity expertise on environmental sustainability and computing. As an IT professional, you should start with a good understanding of the ways to reduce the environmental impact of computing, such as power management, hardware consolidation, and environmental waste management.

As an environmental leader, you also must envision how software and hardware can help to reduce the impact of operations beyond the IT department. You may find yourself working closely with HR managers, attorneys, and business managers to define policies addressing the company's overall environmental impact—perhaps everything from business travel policies to global carbon footprint regulations.

Individuals inside and outside of your company will expect you to have subject matter expertise on the environment, the company, and the industries in which your company operate. So, you'll need to assess your understanding of environmental sustainability and sustainable computing as well as the unique needs of your company in the short and long term.

If you are new to the company or assuming a new role, there will likely be pressure (real or perceived) to act quickly. This is especially true in companies that have very little history of positioning themselves in an environmentally conscious way (and are now anxious to do so).

You should resist this temptation to move too quickly. That can risk your credibility as well as the company's. In the short term, focus on urgent issues and postpone communicating strategic initiatives until you are ready or your ramp-up period has expired.

Objectively Assess Your Company

The next step is to critically assess the environmental and sustainability of your company or line of business. To do this, you'll need to engage key stakeholders and other influential people inside and outside of the company.

You'll need to develop a network of internal and external contacts—people who can enable you to define the ecosystem of stakeholders. They can help you develop an understanding of where the company is on environmental sustainability.

Depending on your responsibilities, you may need to find out where your company stands on compliance (current and future) with environmental regulations, standards, and laws. You might have to measure your company's position with respect to your competition and analyst expectations. You should also understand how customers, partners, governmental organizations, and influential customer advocates perceive your company and its environmental efforts. And you may need to determine current and future technological, financial, and environmental constraints concerning your initiative.

Depending on your company's size and budget, additional research may be worth considering. Constructive insight can come from internal surveys, focus groups, and third-party research. It can help you better understand employee satisfaction regarding past corporate environmental action, where your company stands with respect to the competition, and where latent market opportunities exist. The greatest potential value here, however, is the ability of the third-party research to either validate or refute the opinions held by your key stakeholders.

Envision Where You Want to Be and When

Now you can begin to comprehend where your company needs to be, both in the short term and the long term. To start, you can approximate these as one year and five years, respectively, and then begin to adjust these time frames for your specific needs. The key take-away is that the environment is definitely not a short-term issue, and those who position themselves only in the short term do their company, shareholders, partners, and customers a serious disservice.

To determine where your company needs to be in both the one-year and the five-year periods, you should determine the current and future business landscape that you face. This includes the company culture, the company's short- and long-term business objectives, current and future budgetary constraints, geographic expansion plans, and your industry's changing legal and regulatory environment.

For example, a data center provides a context on the conflict between tactical decision-making and strategic positioning. In the past, space served as the primary consideration for data center design. However, in the past few years, power increasingly challenged space as a limiting factor for growth and became a rising operational cost. Data center operators, who realized the long-term implications of the increased importance of power, took steps to mitigate energy inefficiencies, which included radical shifts in data center management that contradicted the prevailing space-driven decision factor. In some cases, the investments made to mitigate power bore significant short-term costs when compared to maintaining the existing paradigm. However, with the significant rise in energy prices, the data center operators who proactively altered the course of data center management a few years ago are now seen as visionaries, and their companies have more than compensated for the initial investments.

Develop a Vision and Strategy

Now you have to develop a vision and strategy. Obviously, this should arise out of your understanding of where the business is and where it needs to be. When setting the vision and strategy, you should not consider these as being perpetual in nature. While your company's commitment to the environment may be enduring, your vision and strategy likely won't be. It will face major revisions due to internal and external variables, such as changing regulatory requirements, shifts in customer perception, and evolving business needs. With the rise of the corporate environmental initiative, it is important to align the IT vision and strategy with any larger corporate vision and strategy.

When you set the vision, you are setting the direction of your business. You must carefully choose your words so that they are deliberate, concise, and coherent, but not exhaustive. Vision is not meant to address everything your company will do regarding the environment. It should address only those issues that need to be mentioned to correctly orient your employees and partners. A mission statement (or vision statement) is often used to convey the vision. It's essential that you begin to communicate your vision within your first six months.

By setting the strategy, you are not just defining the direction, but also establishing the explicit business goals and objectives as well as outlining the investments that will be made to achieve these goals and objectives. There are existing models that can help you formulate a strategic plan. Two of the best models for environment and sustainability issues are the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental) models. You can then define the strategy in a document, such as a strategic plan.

Note that leaders who widely solicit feedback on their vision and strategy from perceived adopter and resistor stakeholders prior to release of a written statement are more likely to be successful. This is especially true of those who address feedback from the resistors in their final plan.

Evangelize the Business Imperative

Evangelism doesn't have to wait for you to release a vision and strategy. Rather, evangelism must start the day you assume the role. After the release of your vision and strategy, however, you will need to take a more public role—both internally and externally. Initially, you or a proxy will need to communicate your vision to influential groups, such as employees, analysts, media, partners, customers, and customer advocates. You will need to inspire and motivate them to believe in your vision and strategy and make a persuasive argument that your strategy is in the best interest of your company and your target audiences.

In time, you will need to shift your focus to the individual elements of the strategy. Throughout, you must also periodically update these target audiences, pointing out significant milestones that demonstrate success, communicating changes in strategy, and speaking frankly about challenges that your company or industry at large has.

Be ready for each audience to present different interests and needs. While you will need to speak to the specific needs and interests of each audience, your underlying vision and strategy must remain consistent. This will help you more effectively gain buy-in from the various target audiences.

Resist the urge to communicate conflicting "business needs" to appease different audiences. Leaders who do so will not establish credibility on the issues. At a minimum, this can limit their effectiveness in leading change. At worst, this can jeopardize the credibility of the entire company. Figure 1 highlights seven keys to communicating your message effectively.

Figure 1 Seven keys to communicating your message

Figure 1** Seven keys to communicating your message **(Click the image for a larger view)

Manage your Messaging

As you evangelize your vision and strategy, consider the professionalism and integrity of both your internal and external messaging. Environment and sustainability are linked to corporate social responsibility as much as they are linked to product development, services, sales, and marketing. Even if your organization has assigned environmental leadership to you functionally—without giving you direct ownership over environmental sustainability citizenship efforts—you should operate under the assumption that you will be held to the same standards as a citizenship leader.

Do not underestimate your external audience's passion for environmental issues and their familiarity with environmental business practices. More importantly, you should not underestimate their ability to deconstruct your communication if it lacks integrity or promises too much or too little. Otherwise, your company may be labeled a "greenwasher."

Therefore, you need a communications strategy that incorporates a review process that includes internal pundits who can provide feedback before you take a public position. Your communications strategy should frame the key elements of your messaging, such as, for example, a corporate environmental fact sheet, a messaging framework, a list of approved spokespersons, and talking points. The communication strategy, which is key to clear structure and consistency, should be completed soon after the development of your vision and strategy. You can benefit from placing personal accountabilities on the primary owners of the messaging.

Enable Management through Measurement

It's important that you manage the accountabilities that are within the scope of your vision and strategy. Whether operations, product development, or sales and marketing, you must define the factors that impact your ability to meet your goals and objectives. These factors should be organized into a concise list and mapped to the overall strategic plan. You will then need to qualitatively and/or quantitatively baseline these factors and establish tracking metrics that enable future analysis. These metrics should be actively managed.

Accountabilities for reporting on these tracking metrics should be clearly defined, and you should hold regular meetings that include all the key stakeholders. The stakeholders can then discuss the impact of the tracking metrics on the health of the strategic plan, which is made possible by the mapping of the metrics to the factors and the factors in turn to the individual elements of the strategic plan.

Unfortunately, many environmental leaders will find that their organizations are not prepared to support such tracking metrics with the measurement tools. But these tools are necessary to provide the qualitative and quantitative data you need to properly analyze and report on environment and sustainability efforts. You, therefore, must develop specialized measurement tools, whether through business process redesign, deployment of collaboration and measurement technology, or the development of customized internal tools.

Without support from senior leadership regarding the company's investment in these measurement tools, you will probably face serious cost-benefit decisions about whether to make the right measurement tools a priority at the expense of additional headcount.

Analyze and Report Environmental Impact

The collection of the quantitative and qualitative data enables in-depth analysis. This analysis is critical for leaders who want to understand how successful their initiatives are and what the impact of their actions has been on the company or its line of business.

The changing regulatory, standardization, legal, and voluntary corporate reporting landscape with respect to the environment has placed increasing pressure on companies to release detailed information about their environmental footprints. Having the necessary tools and processes in place to support management, measurement, and analysis facilitates the collection of the information demanded for mandated annual reports, required filings, and voluntary corporate sustainability reports. It is, therefore, important that you understand what your reporting requirements are and what they will be in the future, so that you can invest in an integrated management, measurement, analysis, and reporting infrastructure that will grow with your business needs.

Technology for analysis and reporting is very important to companies seeking to emerge as thought leaders. Software plays a key role in this space—especially software used for environmental management, process design, data collection, data manipulation, remote sensing, collaboration, visualization, and presentation.

Commercially available software will sometimes need to be customized for specific applications in the environmental space. Thus, significant investment in technology may be required to enable an integrated management, measurement, analysis, and reporting infrastructure.

Be a Thought Leader

Thought leadership is something every environmental leader should aspire to achieve. While there are various types of thought leaders (see Figure 2 for some examples), they all have this in common: their expertise is derived not from a title but rather from their record of taking action and leading change with integrity and openness.

Figure 2 Types of thought leaders

Figure 2** Types of thought leaders **(Click the image for a larger view)

The global environmental sustainability ecosystem relies on thought leaders to drive change. With an expansive network of contacts across governmental, non-governmental, industry, and consumer advocacy organizations, a thought leader can connect influential parties to address issues that require close collaboration. A thought leader is also familiar with many of the emerging environmental issues that are of concern to the global community and can carry the flag of these issues to a global audience.

Finally, a thought leader envisions solutions to important issues that have yet to fall into the focus of the industry at large. Development of these solutions may require influencing and collaborating with others—including competitors—and may push your own company into markets not yet serviced, but the result is that thought leaders can effect change that is global.

Remain Current

This is an emerging discipline and there are regular changes to the body of knowledge. Ongoing credibility will require a scholarly understanding of the diverse scientific, policy, legal, economic, technology, and business perspectives promoted by other environmental leaders. It will also require not necessarily conforming with the predominate opinions of the day, but rather promoting unique perspectives based upon an expert understanding of environmental sustainability and computing. This integrity will be a major differentiator given the increasing number of environmental leaders (or people claiming to be thought leaders) in the industry.

An established leader must also have security in delegating responsibilities to subordinates who possess specific knowledge on a topic of interest and deferring to more senior representatives of environmental policy within the company when an engagement calls for it. While regular meetings with your seniors and reports will ensure that you maintain comprehensive knowledge on your company's efforts with respect to environmental sustainability, the key is knowing when you need to speak on behalf of the company. This requires a clear understanding of your core commitments and is a trait that reflects the sincere responsibility you have to uphold the convictions on the environment that your internal and external audiences expect.

Michael Walsh is Senior Environmental Product Manager at Microsoft.

Eliza Walsh is a Communications Strategy Consultant and formerly served as a Communications Specialist for Microsoft in China.

© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.