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Can Universities Lead the Way to Embedding Sustainability Within Organizations?

This was the question that motivated Bruno Sarda, Director of Global Sustainability Operations at Dell and adjunct professor at Arizona State University (ASU), and Dr. George Basile, senior sustainability scientist and School of Sustainability professor at ASU, to partner with GreenBiz Group in a survey of corporate leaders in July of 2012.

This was the question that motivated Bruno Sarda, Director of Global Sustainability Operations at Dell and adjunct professor at Arizona State University (ASU), and Dr. George Basile, senior sustainability scientist and School of Sustainability professor at ASU, to partner with GreenBiz Group in a survey of corporate leaders in July of 2012. Sarda and Basile were jointly tasked with creating an Executive Master’s program for the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) and were looking for input from sustainability executives on how to make the degree program as impactful as possible.

Searching for the “How”

Survey respondents represented a good mix of titles, from sustainability managers to the C-Suite — almost 400 respondents in all, most of whom (68%) had been in the work force for 16+ years. While most of them (68% again) claimed to be very knowledgeable, and 64% of them counted sustainability as a primary part of their current job, almost half were interested in further expanding their knowledge of sustainability.

More than two-thirds of respondents believed that they had most or all of the knowledge, skills and tools they needed, and yet 80% of them believed that formal education could help in their current job or future career. This was particularly remarkable because 50% of them already held a Master’s degree, most of which were MBAs.

For Sarda, this struck a chord.

“For some people, sustainability seems ‘stuck’ — they’ve been at this for a while, they thrive on seeing change happen, but for a variety of reasons, that change has decelerated. They know where they want to go… they just need help figuring out how to get there,” Sarda said. “What we’re finding is that there are lots of individuals today who have the passion, who have the knowledge, but they’re asking for a greater set of capabilities and tools.”

Leadership Is the Key

Not surprisingly, those who responded to the survey were passionate about sustainability as a primary tenet of organizational strategy. And although about one-third of them said that their pursuit of further education in sustainability was motivated by functional reasons (advancing their own careers), an equal number said that their reasons were based on a concern for the greater good; 55% of respondents said their motivations were equally divided between the two.

Most of the respondents felt that they already possessed good personal skills, but rated (in ascending order) communications and marketing skills (80%), change management (81%), strategy development (88%) and technical knowledge of sustainability (88%) to be the most important skills in helping an organization improve its sustainability performance. At the very top of the list, 93% of respondents believed leadership to be the most important skill of all.

So the question for Sarda and Basile became how to teach action-oriented leadership that could drive transformative, high-impact results for organizations and individuals using sustainability as a guiding lens?

According to Sarda, “Survey respondents told us that an effective Executive Master’s program must come from an institution like ASU that is recognized for leadership in the sustainability space, and it must be focused on solutions. It was very important, from the start, to design a program around the needs of busy working professionals, wherever they might be, and to utilize ASU’s expert faculty and the 270 sustainability scientists and scholars at GIOS, as well as respected thought leaders from outside academia, to teach leadership through the lens of sustainability.”

Who Will Lead the Way?

Survey respondents overwhelmingly (76%) agreed that universities can lead organizations forward in meeting their sustainability goals because they are a trusted and unbiased partner, with the knowledge base and research focus to find real-world solutions. In addition, universities are perceived to be change agents within the society, and, as one respondent stated, “a university can treat this as a change-management issue, not a sustainability issue.” Respondents highlighted that the universities must also be clearly committed and capable at the nexus of sustainability and leadership.

According to Basile, institutions such as ASU understand this, as is evidenced by the establishment of GIOS, a university-wide institute developed to extend sustainability education and practices across the entire university and partner with enterprises at all scales.

“ASU recognizes that sustainability is not about the ivory tower or just theory. It is about making better decisions today, now, in the real world. This institute and its School of Sustainability, the nation’s first comprehensive school in this arena, leads a university-wide operational sustainability effort as a living laboratory for understanding sustainability action. And our development of this new Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership, thanks to the investment from Rob and Melani Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, is further proof of the university’s commitment to identifying and enabling solutions to our global sustainability challenges.”

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