Interviews: Paving the Way Towards a Future of Sustainability in Business Education

By: Elena Rohner, Graduate IGEL Coordinator.  April 12th, 2017

Solutions for improving sustainability in business education often center on creating integrated, cross-disciplinary courses or concentrations; yet this requires a large investment of time and resources. It can take at least a semester to put together the syllabus, materials and teaching tools for a new course, not to mention the time dedicated to overcoming administrative bureaucracy. Therefore, one of the best solutions that business schools can employ to better prepare students for roles in sustainability is: get them talking to professionals!

I recently interviewed two leaders in sustainability for a final assignment in a course called Leading Change for Sustainability (ENVS 682) taught by Penn alum and Sustrana Sr. Associate, Kim Quick and Penn’s Sustainability Director, Dan Garofalo. One interviewee was Todd Hoff, VP of Marketing and Customer Solutions at CHEP North America. Hoff reiterated, in a more nuanced manner, strategies and take-aways commonly touted in the sustainability world. He also shared stories of achievements and challenges, highlighting the seemingly basic pathways and pitfalls of sustainability that continue to pervade industry and create unsolved barriers to sustainability.

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Here are some of my take-aways from our conversation:

  • People don’t know what sustainability is…
    • Sustainability remains an enigma—a concept widely misunderstood with a different definition according to pretty much anyone you ask. Many business executives define sustainability as a strategic force in leadership where an organization makes impactful choices that preserve economic and environmental resources.
    • Hoff shared that sustainability should not be understood as something separate from the business activities. Business can make a difference through business itself, and as a result sustainability should be embedded in the decision-making and the core operations of the company. Hoff also finds peoples’ confusion about sustainability to be the most challenging aspect of working as a sustainability proponent. He highlights the example of employees confusing a sustainability initiative with office supply recycling. And, while recycling is one facet of “sustainability,” it is only that. A single and siloed leverage point. People fail to understand the need for a multifaceted approach to sustainability. As an example, Todd shared his experience at Brambles, the parent company of CHEP, where they have a multi-faceted sustainability strategy including Better Planet, Better Business, and Better Community. http://www.brambles.com/sustainability
  • Having a growth mindset is key:
    • A lot of class time in ENVS 682 is spent identifying and leveraging strengths and mindset. Hoff, whose team just took the Gallup Strength Finder questionnaire, said his results were: relator, learner, arranger, achiever, and includer. Hoff also highlighted his growth mindset when it comes to work—he is motivated by the work itself and the constant growth and learning involved in his role. It is clear that a successful sustainability, or any business, leader has a growth mindset, strong communication skills, and a talent for seeing and making connections.
  • Adam Grant got it right.
    • In class we saw Adam Grant’s quote, “The stories we tell ourselves shape what we do. If you believe people are fundamentally selfish, you will act in ways that make it true.” This stuck with me, so I asked Hoff what he thought about the quote and whether it held relevance for his work. He agreed with Grant and without me bringing up the concept of positive psychology, Hoff gave a great example of how he lives by this concept every day. Hoff noted his learner strength and that he tries to always stay positive in his learning approach. He said that “it’s all related”—that is, successfully managing a large diverse team and achieving the results he wants to see.
  • Surprise! Money plays a critical role:
    • Hoff highlighted how financials are always a motivating factor in any sustainability conversation. He spoke about the “business sense” argument as an invaluable strategy when working with people who are not on board with a sustainability initiative. In other words, he makes sure to include the environmental benefits of the service or product, but what truly seals the deal is conveying how a client can also make or save money. His strategy is to sell the “Win-Win” concept. In this sense, money is the problem solver—it creates a common ground, a business language that everyone speaks and understands. And many, myself included, agree with this idea.

As I hope was conveyed above, interviews and coffee chats are an incredibly rewarding experience for students in any field. From the student and professional’s perspective, the benefits of an interview are a win-win, including:

  • Students learn insider tips
  • Professionals share anecdotes that highlight key, industry-specific take-aways
  • Both parties build their network

And, the best part about interviews is the minimal infrastructure and planning required—all you need is a phone and 20-30 minutes of someone’s day.

 

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