However, not everyone strives to be invisible. Asked about the notion that his position should eventually cease to exist, Frank O’Brien-Bernini, chief sustainability officer for Owens Corning, told me: “I so don't agree with that. That's like saying that because we've got Sarbanes-Oxley, we don't need a CFO anymore. Like it would lead itself? Like we don't need a Chief R&D Officer or Chief Innovation Officer, because everybody gets that it matters? No, it needs to be led to happen.”
Indeed, everyone should act in accordance with the law, but no lawyers or compliance officers told me that they aim to put themselves out of business. Companies like DuPont and ExxonMobil embrace the mantra that safety is everyone’s responsibility, but they still have executives in charge of safety to maintain and improve their standards.
Nonetheless, I was struck by the notion that those with the deepest influence are those who can deploy that influence subtly. As Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch once told me, “Good advocacy is getting somebody to think that it is in their interest to do what you want them to do.” In his book Tribes, entrepreneur Seth Godin writes, “If it’s about your mission, about spreading the faith, about seeing something happen, not only do you not care about credit, you actually want other people to take credit.”
When it comes to driving change in a company, then, the “how” might be more important than the “what,” given that practically every role in a company has potential. As the nonprofit Net Impact advises its student and young-professional members seeking careers where they’ll make a difference: “The reality is that there are a limited number of corporate jobs with ‘sustainability’ or ‘citizenship’ in the job title. The good news is there are opportunities to make an impact from all roles within a company, not just from the vantage point of a dedicated department.”
Mark Moody-Stuart, a former managing director at Shell who chairs the United Nations Global Compact Foundation, told me that lots of people ask for his advice on how to build a career in corporate responsibility or sustainability. “I tell them, ‘The first thing you need is a career!’”
That said, these days there are more and more opportunities that are explicitly about sustainability. According to GreenBiz.com, sustainability-related headcount has increased for 40 percent of the more than 5,600 companies they surveyed; postings for sustainability jobs in U.S. companies have risen from 300 in 2010 to 700 in 2014. But that’s still not a huge number. For those who don’t land one of those jobs, they would do well to lead with their functional expertise and bring their sustainability values along with them.
Not that all positions are created equal. There are roles that unquestionably shape a company’s identity and enable it to function: Human resources determines the composition of a company’s staff; design decides what that staff produces; supply chain procures the ingredients of the product; operations and logistics move all the bits and pieces where they need to go; finance ensures that the money is flowing where it needs to flow.