In March Amy Meyer attended the Climate Leadership Conference, spending three days on Baltimore’s waterfront and learning about the latest in best practices for tackling climate change across industry and the public sector. 

Through Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative, I have been studying the intersection of business and sustainability for two years here at MIT, and was excited to interact with so many corporate leaders first-hand.

The conference covered a range of topics, everything from clean mobility solutions and supply chain innovations to financing and the circular economy. It was a busy three-days, and I scrambled to balance networking and attending panels with the need to collect data for my own research project on corporate engagement and climate policy. There were many amazing presentations, but one that stuck with me the most was a plenary featuring four sustainability directors from top U.S. companies. They shared strategies for being effective change-makers in their organizations, and I’ve summarized some of the key takeaways below:

Look to the future while staying grounded in the present

Part of working in sustainability is adopting a futurist lens. You need to be always taking the long-term view, thinking about future product security, future emissions, future generations, etc. Of course, this can be at odds with traditional corporate focus on quarterly earnings and short-term outcomes. Speakers suggested that sustainability workers learn to strike a balance and be able to speak credibly in both worlds while continually working to bridge the gap.

Speak the language of your company

It’s not uncommon for those who work in specialized fields to be using a language all their own – replete with unique metrics and foreign acronym soup. The speakers encouraged anyone interested in pushing sustainability in their companies to ‘meet people where they are’. Essentially, this means figuring out the critical values of that person’s job function and reframing conversations around sustainability or climate in those terms. They also suggested finding out what software or other sorts of tools upper management is already familiar with, and adapting that for sustainability goals/tracking.

Don’t rely on one charismatic leader

Speakers were clear that relying on one leader to champion sustainability in your firm is a major misstep. As one panelist put it, people go away, and if you’ve built a program around that single person it becomes brittle and lacks resiliency. They encouraged the audience to think about their strategy for when a CEO steps down or board members change, baking long-term thinking directly into their internal department operations. They also stressed the importance of getting middle-level management on board for any program, citing this group as both a major barrier and critical ally.

Prioritize collaboration over competition

In the business world, competitors are never far from thought. On matters of sustainability, the panelists encouraged the audience to think about collaboration first, competition second. The Global VP of Sustainability from candy-company Mars shared his strategy, stating that “as a rule, sustainability works better together. We always start there, and walk it back if we need to.” Whether it’s working together in industry coalitions, sharing best practices, or transforming a supply chain, speakers admitted to often feeling closer to their counterparts at other firms as opposed to internal colleagues.