"Understanding Sustainability Is Not Enough"

by | October 25, 2010

William Paddock graduated from Lipscomb University in 2009 with an MBA in Sustainability. In 2005, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, all Paddock knew was that he wanted businesses to become more environmentally friendly. When an opportunity with M&M Mars led him back to school to learn "the language of business," he decided to use his MBA years as practice ground for building a business case for CSR and sustainability.

In 2008, while still in school, he founded WAP Sustainability. Today, WAP Sustainability boasts three offices and multiple Fortune 100 clients. In a candid interview, Paddock shared his journey through corporate America, being one of the first sustainability graduates in the state of Tennessee and his observations on CSR as a formalized career path with Vault's CSR Editor Aman Singh.

Your interest in sustainability…

William

My interest in sustainability has been more of an evolution. Having done poorly in high school physics, my science teacher offered me a chance at extra credit if I did a science fair project. So I worked with Montgomery County in Ohio with one of their environmental labs and waste water treatment plants, where I had to walk this side tributary that was downstream of the treatment plant and do some basic pH, dissolved oxygen level testing.

During the next three to four months, it became highly discouraging for me to realize that there was this huge environmental issue right in my backyard. Till then I had been comfortable in the premise that government and business took care of the environment. Anyway, this small high school science fair project, that I started to get extra credit in physics took me to the state science fair, where I was selected to go on to the International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, which happened to be sponsored by Intel.

While in San Jose, company representatives went around judging the entries and offering scholarships and awards in multiple categories. It was at that Intel International Science and Engineering fair, I realized that businesses had a huge interest in science and specifically the environment. That is how I got into environmental science. This led to the University of Alabama where I studied an inter-disciplinary environmental science program. Recognizing that I had an interest in business, my next move was figuring out how to help businesses become more environmentally friendly.

That led to pursuing sustainability.

What led to an MBA concentrating on sustainability?

The MBA really came about as the result of a failure to understand business and its dynamics. When I graduated with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, it was much easier to make the soft sell to businesses, i.e., it’s the right thing to do, goodwill, etc. However, it was the economic side that can in the end makes the case for why businesses must become more responsible citizens. And I realized that I wasn’t speaking the language of business.

I had spent enough time in the sustainability field to know that I wanted to stay connected with it so I didn’t want to just go to any business school. Out of the 22 programs that I shortlisted, I was highly inspired by the one at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice in Tennessee because of the way its core content integrated with sustainability.

For me business school became a great place to practice discussing and laying out the business case for CSR and sustainability. It gave me the necessary experiences that are not as easy to come by in everyday work.

Should CSR have a specific place in MBA curriculum?

Absolutely. Despite having gone through a sustainability program, I still feel that there's more room for integration. For example, sustainability as a core part of business strategy, integrating green consumerism with marketing courses, integrating accounting courses with sustainability reporting, etc.

How do you define CSR?

Either you go the sustainability route as a wide umbrella that encompasses environmental responsibility, CSR, etc. or you have CSR as the umbrella and sustainability and social equity and other pieces built underneath that.

I tend to lean more toward sustainability as being the overarching umbrella.

And finally, WAP Sustainability...

When I went to graduate school, I had the opportunity to do some consulting. So WAP was created while I was in business school. I had one client initially, which turned into two, then four. When I graduated, WAP had four clients. Next I brought on a partner and today we have a little over dozen clients.

But it was never intended to be a fulltime, end all solution. My plan was always to get my MBA and then return to corporate America. However, a little success and good luck has allowed my the opportunity to work on amazing projects with fantastic clients.

What has been some of the initial feedback from clients?

What we've been able to do is take sustainability from being an academic principle where no one argues the concept, to application and implementation. And having been able to figure out the HOW when exploring sustainability is one of the best comments we receive.

As consultants, our role is to set the context for what we're talking about and provide the appropriate perspective that our clients understand. We provide that through specific numbers, data, research, and most importantly, through human engagement. If you really spend some time to educate companies on the complexities of sustainability and then go a step further to engage them, then there is a real chance of their contextualizing sustainability.

How do you approach sustainability with companies, i.e., as a companywide cultural change or a departmental effort?

For us it's got to be integrated and collaborative. There needs to be a thought leader leading the initiatives with dedicated and committed resources, but it cannot be a standalone function. Here's where the question of scale comes in: It is not possible for one person to be able to handle all the sustainability and CSR functions at a midsize company. In most cases, this is where consultants come in with niche skills and technical knowhow.

Where do you see CSR going as a career path?

I'm teaching a class right now where during orientation I told the students that at the end of the class, I'd like for them to have a perspective on what type of skills they want to go forward and develop. With sustainability careers the people that are currently in Chief Sustainability Officer roles or senior sustainability positions are generally seasoned professionals and proven leaders in a specific business. While it happens, it's highly unlikely that as a young graduate of sustainability, you'll end up leading these initiatives at companies. So for this stage, it is hugely important that you figure out what skills you'd like to develop and prove yourself as a professional.

If you want to develop skills around educating and engaging people on sustainability, that’s one path. If you want to learn how to measure and manage, then you should be looking at things like greenhouse gas certification, etc. If you're looking at life cycle assessments, being able to measure and compare products and their sustainability, then you should be focusing on life cycle technology and training.

I think people should be attaining these kinds of focused skill sets rather than achieving broad based, practitioner level knowledge of sustainability. You need to be able to not just understand sustainability but take it forward and set the ball rolling: measure GHGs and have a way of measuring your performance, etc. Once you've got these tools, you can actually start doing sustainability within a company versus just knowing how to talk about it. Eventually you'll move up and dictate thought leadership.

So, it's going to be a process of evolution, finding niche areas of specialization, and then growing and expanding those as you deliver results and show progress.

Any advice for jobseekers who want to focus on sustainability and CSR?

The best advice I can give is to figure out what it is you want to do and do everything you possibly can to go out and learn about that field. Sustainability used to be a fairly small tight knit community but that circle has grown so big that that small community has created sub-communities today. You need to be able to figure out if you're a green building person, an energy efficiency person, or a sustainability reporting person. Specific roles are emerging everyday, find a place to start and develop yourself further as a sustainability professional.

Also, several people have told me how they’ve been trained in systems thinking and that that’s what they're now looking for in a job. The problem is that systems thinking, while incredibly valuable, is a skill set, not a job. Remember that when you give interviews and network.

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