Environmental Protection

It's Not My Job

In a changing business environment, just what are your job responsibilities?

Environmental, health, and safety (EHS) roles and responsibilities have been shaped over the past 30 years primarily by U.S.-based regulatory requirements. But what happens if other forces were to dominate how EHS professionals add value? That tipping point may be approaching, and once reached, EHS roles and responsibilities could dramatically shift, hopefully for the better -- but maybe for the worse. Will other functional areas grab the very best jobs? The answer lies in whether EHS professionals will lead, follow, or get pushed out of the way.

I often run draft copies of my "Manager's Notebook" column past senior colleagues prior to submission to Environmental Protection as a sanity check to see if I should "up the meds." Last month's column, "Auditing - Moving through four transitions," elicited a reaction that is the inspiration for this month's diatribe.

To recap, the April 2006 Manager's Notebook asserted that, in the future, auditors should engage in "enterprise auditing" and not just traditional compliance, process-risk and management-system auditing. Enterprise auditing was defined as strategically addressing long-term business threats and opportunities to position the company competitively vis-à-vis social responsibility and EHS.


This is how a senior colleague reacted:1

"As a practical matter, one must ask oneself whether the EHS auditors (whose backgrounds are typically environmental engineering, Certified Safety Professionals, Certified Industrial Hygienists, etc.) are in the best position to perform the type of assessments that they are now expanding into.

"Put another way, while I may agree that EHS auditors are broadening their horizons in order to fill a void, I am left wondering whether this isn't merely a response to a problem not of their making and not truly capable of being resolved by most of the current EHS auditors since they do not have the requisite backgrounds and/or sightlines to do so effectively.

"The problem statement that you describe boils down to flawed strategic planning that fails to adequately account for emerging issues and trends, some EHS in nature, but many other enterprise risks that are not. It is the domain of company leaders (usually a cross-functional group of finance, legal, MBAs, etc...) to assess the external environment, their internal business and identify the risks and responses. I become troubled when I see EHS auditors trying to resolve these much larger issues and failures in strategic planning and, therefore, corporate direction."

So whose job is it?

She is absolutely on point -- that is, for today's reality. EHS strategic planning, in the vast majority of cases, is anemic. EHS auditors typically have limited financial experience and, instead, concentrate on their check sheets rather than strategic business issues. Company business leaders should be rising to the occasion to deal with emerging EHS issues, but they are not -- with a few rare exceptions, of course. EHS managers are struggling just to keep their heads above the day-to-day tasks, let alone go searching for new work for their staff.

But what about the future? If you believe that the EHS world will become pretty much a linear extrapolation of today's issues and activities, then no major adjustments are likely or even required. If, on the other hand, you believe that we are reaching a tipping point, then all bets are off; everything is in play, including EHS roles and responsibilities.

I have written extensively about this approaching transformation.2 In this brief article, I will not even attempt to summarize the markers that are signaling this shift, except for one recent example.

The climate change debate has been around for decades. Until recently, it has been dismissed by business as unsupported conjecture (The Wall Street Journal editors) and, at worst, a scam by environmentalists to raise revenue (State of Fear by Michael Crichton).

Contrast this exercise in denial with the points raised by Eugene Linden in a recent issue of Fortune magazine describing the speculation over rapid climate change (i.e., the "switch vs. dial" theory) and its business implications. The pièce de résistance was a chilling passage describing hypothetical future restrictions in Exxon Mobil's directors' and officers' (D&O) liability insurance.3 Fascinating stuff. Again, this is just one example; there are hundreds of others, and, just as significantly, there is the growing recognition that the traditional regulatory approach to dealing with EHS issues may be seriously flawed.4

The Fortune article is also the type of information likely to attract the attention of those who control the resources. Morphing into my best Andy Rooney impersonation, "Did you ever wonder why there are never resources available, that is, until the fecal matter hits the rotating blades?" The point being, if the proverbial "THEY" (i.e., business executives) understand the dynamics in play, it is amazing what can happen. THEY are not stupid people and do not need a subpoena in their face or a spreadsheet to understand complex competitive business issues.

So why have THEY not been fully engaged? First and foremost, this is just one issue of many vying for their attention. But I also suspect that many EHS managers: (1) Know that many of these issues cannot be quantified and are challenging to explain; (2) Assume that management will not listen; (3) May not have the background and experience in EHS to know how to make the business case; (4) Think that career longevity is enhanced by maintaining a low profile; (5) Imagine that they have everything covered (for Goodness' sake, don't try to tell them otherwise); (6) Benchmark these issues to death among their peers (a variation of the "I'm OK, your OK" theme); and/or (7) Bet that nothing odorous will hit the fan on their shift.

But, I digress. To be fair, some very good EHS managers are organizationally isolated in horrendously managed companies. To those, I say, "Get out!" There are other companies that can use your talent. These are exhilarating times, and, with the right approach, EHS managers are in an ideal position to add substantial value -- indeed, material value -- in the Securities-and-Exchange-Commission sense.

But are EHS professionals the right people to lead the charge, to the point raised earlier by my colleague? You bet. For example, CEOs come from a variety of backgrounds, often financial, but then there are the engineers like Jack Welch and the super geeks like Bill Gates. I think that, through proper training, EHS auditors, and especially the EHS corporate managers, are in as good a position as anyone else to identify significant competitive issues. The key, of course, is whether they have the courage, the interpersonal skills, and the smarts, since so much of what one ultimately accomplishes depends on these factors rather than the degree received.

EHS professionals, however, are currently cast into narrow service roles, both by themselves and upper management. Do most auditors recognize the emerging challenges, and are they trying to respond to them? My colleague and I do not think so. Ditto for most EHS VPs and directors.

Reaching for the Gold
My suspicion is that the marketing guys and gals are beginning to see the risks and opportunities created by emerging EHS issues. The problem is that, by the time they understand these issues, the strategies become obvious, and the full competitive advantage diminishes. Nevertheless, being creative, even with well known issues, can have enormous marketing advantage.

For example, energy conservation has been around in environmental circles for decades. The environmental managers at GE knew that the company had a broad array of products with good energy conservation properties relative to the competition. They assembled this information, and the marketers grabbed it and created EcoInnovation. Jeff Gowdy, an MBA student at Vanderbilt who worked as an intern last summer on its launch, recently stated that: "EcoInnovation is simply a marketing campaign right now. But it is also a longer-term, multibillion dollar growth strategy for GE . . . there is an emerging market for products that provide cost savings, through environmental improvements for business customers."5

Marketing is just one dimension; supply chain, process design, and product design are others. You do not need an MBA to recognize that "a longer-term, multibillion dollar growth strategy" will involve all sorts of exciting career opportunities, and that the best jobs and opportunities are yet to be defined. When the tipping point is reached, all the newly created (and higher paying) jobs will be up for grabs.

It is easy to discard my views of how most EHS professionals appear to be rising to the challenge. First, of course, this "challenge" could be nothing more than just my own ramblings (but supported by a recent upsurge among numerous thought leaders). Second, the transition has been slow and certainly not as obvious and urgent as the day-to-day firefighting that dominates much of the daily activities for many EHS professionals. And finally, one can simply dismiss these potential future career opportunities as being only possible within the domain of a few major multinationals.

To my clients, however, the underlying dynamics that create these EHS career opportunities are real. To the business executives who work for my clients, they are very real. And when THEY get engaged, stuff happens. Is stuff happening in your company?

Reference

  1. The name and affiliation has been omitted to protect the innocent (i.e., her & me) from six months of delay and harassment from internal company lawyers fretting over providing a company-sanctioned release. Trust me, big, brand-name Corporation and smart lady.
  2. See for example, "Corporate Environmentalism: In search of vision, leadership and strategy," Environmental Quality Management, Volume 15, Issue 1, Autumn 2005, Pages 1-14; "Global Drivers: Dealing with the next generation of regulations, standards and corporate watchdogs," Environmental Protection, June 2005.
  3. Eugene Linden, "Cloudy with a Chance of Chaos," Fortune, January 17, 2006. Available at http://money.cnn.com/, last visited 3/6/06.
  4. An excellent example is the recent article by David Victor, "Recovering Sustainable Development," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 1, January/February 2006, Pages 91-103.
  5. Jeff Gowdy, Green Marketing and Green Product Leadership, Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies Newsletter, Spring 2006, Page 3, available at http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/, last visited 3/12/06.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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