February 19, 2020

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Why the Sustainability Leadership Pipeline Begins with Women

Listen to intuition more than your brain about when to change jobs or how to develop your career path.


By Andrea Learned 

If ever there were a reason to keep an eye on the corporate leadership pipeline, the sustainable business movement is it.

A recent Spheres of Influence conversation hosted by leadership coach Sarah Warren, PhD., looked at just this topic with the help of two women who shared their own career paths in sustainability. What emerged from the hour-long discussion was a better understanding of how women can make their way toward sustainability-oriented careers and how we can encourage both women and men to strengthen - and balance - communications skills as well as science and engineering skills.

Another key point: women must become deliberate about influencing others to join the sustainable business movement.

An Indirect Path to Sustainability

Ilsa Flanagan, director for the Office of Sustainability at the University of Chicago, began the discussion by sharing her path from an early interest in graduate women’s studies programs to a series of professions and focus areas that formed what turned out to be the best foundation for her current role.

Her journey is a study in nonlinearity.

Just before entering the graduate women’s studies program, Flanagan had an epiphany. She realized Ilsa Flanaganthat such a degree "was not going to give me the power I needed to make what I want happen in the world," So she changed gears and instead applied to law school.

After a few years or practicing law, she realized that even a law degree had failed to give her that power. So, Flanagan headed into public policy.

The work she did in that position set the template for what followed for the rest of her career: started new departments within organizations and new programs for institutions. Her next position was heading up sustainability for a corporate bank, which helped land her in her current role with the University of Chicago.

Along the way, Flanagan experienced several different cultures surrounding the topic of sustainability. Where the corporate and NGO cultures seemed to struggle with sharing knowledge among themselves, even when it was for the collective good, higher education proved to be the most sustainability-integrated, collaborative and peer-to-peer learning and sharing environment.

And, Flanagan says she has finally found her comfort zone. Her advice to young women pursuing sustainability-focused work is to listen to intuition more than your brain about when to change jobs or how to develop your career path. Sometimes an indirect path leads to the best outcome.

Communications As a “Hard Skill”

Fenton Senior Vice President Susan McPherson then joined the conversation to share her insights on women in CSR leadership, noting that up until the past few years, many sustainability leaders were Susan McPhersonmen who came to those positions along an engineering path. Communications has been a hard sell.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years are communications and philanthropic endeavors that have now also been mixed into the sustainability world. This has opened up the pool to bring a lot more women into the field coming at it from a different direction,” she said.

McPherson also suggested that the strengths and capabilities “more typical of the nature of women,” that we can be more collaborative and empathetic, for example, are “just the traits we need to get CSR initiatives built across a company.”

Those interested in a sustainability career should definitely “be proud of being a good communicator,” she recommended citing research from Zenger Folkman (2012), which found having more women at senior levels of management, who have both communications strengths and the drive for results, improves the overall effectiveness of a leadership team.

Start Sharing Success Stories

So, how can we support and guide more women into sustainability leadership positions? For starters, as McPherson and Flanagan indicated, we must do a better job of sharing the many compelling stories of women working in sustainability, no matter which path they take or what their title.

As McPherson pointed, “we really need to shine a light on the women who are coming at this field from the engineering and environmental side.” Today’s girls and young women need to clearly see themselves in sustainability’s many exciting business roles, from the engineering lab to the C-suite.

While both speakers arrived at their sustainability focus not by following a straight line from college to the present but through a wide range of fields and meandering paths, they each honored their strengths and personal passions. Other suggestions included: 

  • Be voraciously curious
  • Make it a habit to listen 50 percent more than you speak
  • Network with intention, use social media, volunteer and join nonprofit
  • Advocate for getting more young women into STEM courses
  • Be patient, and find early jobs that truly challenge and interest you
  • Tell all the great stories you hear about sustainability jobs and careers as often and in as many shapes and forms as possible.

The talent and sustainability passion exists in today’s college students and young professionals as they seek models and examples of how to put that into the business context. We’d do well to share the wisdom of leaders like Ilsa Flanagan and Susan McPherson with as many of those women, and men, as possible.

About the Author:

Andrea Learned is a Seattle-based author and communications strategist who has been writing about sustainable business and CSR since 2008. The co-author of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy - and How To Reach Your Share of this Crucial Market, Andrea now applies her gender lens to sustainability leadership and consumer markets. For more on Andrea, please visit Learned On or follow her Twitter stream: @AndreaLearned.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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