4 things to help you separate Sustainability Pros from Amateurs

Only a small set of the companies that exist give any attention to their sustainability profile or carbon liability. Of those that do there's a much smaller subset that really have sustainability in their blood. If you're considering joining those clubs you may be asking where to find a guide who can steer you in the right direction. Let's look at some basics you should be considering in the process of choosing consultant (or an outright hire) for that role. First though, a reminder of why sustainability is and will continue to be a core business issue:

+/- $250,000,000 that's the rough value of losses claimed by Honda when their plants in Thailand flooded in 2011 thanks to an uncommonly heavy monsoon season.

+/- 15 years The time period over which rising sea levels will cost coastal areas from Maine to Texas an additional $2-3.5B/year. (According to the Risky Business report)

+/- $130,000,000,000 That's the rough payouts for extreme weather by reinsurance company Munich Re in 2012. (Incidentally, this is only the third most expensive year the other two are 2005 & 2011 which tie for hottest years on record.)

With real and impacting numbers like these it shouldn't come as a surprise that lots of very well-monied interests are concern with the lack of preparation in the business community around climate risks. There are lots of reasons why action has lagged far behind concern but one of the key disconnects seems to be the apparent lack of expertise in the market. There are great consultants out there to be sure but how do you find them? What questions do you ask to make sure they're worth hiring?

What does the right person look like?

When you want a plumber or an accountant it's not that hard to find a good one. There are plenty of reviews and a well established cannon for the discipline. Everyone you will ever meet has a story about a good mechanic and a bad mechanic. Not so for sustainability professionals. Even the term "sustainability professionals" is problematic. It's like "sportsman"- do you mean an olympic gymnast, a fisherman or a formula one driver? Very different kinds of athletes there who have absolutely nothing in common with one another.

Similarly, the screening process is clumsy. How long should they have been in business? Is it even credible to claim that you've been in sustainability for more than a few years? Keep your mind on these four points and you should be able to hedge your bets.

Metrics of Success- Does this person talk about successes or do they enumerate successes? Did they improve their clients energy profile or did they decrease costs by 30%? Did they eliminate risks or identify and eliminate $2.5m in carbon liability? In short, how much money did they save? How much risk did they eliminate? How much press did they generate and what other metrics are they using to justify their place in your expense sheet? If they tell you that benefits are hard to quantify- run. The professional can cite specific numbers. The professional has a battery of metrics (many of which may be strange to you) on which to hang his or her hat.

Take specific note here that results may be in contrast to time in the business or to education level. There are no 30 year old sustainability companies. The best people you meet in any discipline under the sustainability banner are going to have results but don't at all be surprised if they're not formally educated in the field or haven't built a long history. Everything is too new for that. Separate the wheat from the chaff with numbers.

Clarity on Expertise- The "sportsman" example able is a good one. It's hard to be all things to all businesses. On a recent lobbying trip to DC, I had a chance to talk with a colleague at the White House OMB who is responsible for Federal IT policy. This guy is a true professional and we were having a conversation about the intersection of sustainable
procurement, IT Infrastructure and renewable power. This was out of my league. As a sustainability professional and the author of the Climate|Money|Policy blog I know what my strengths are and what they aren't. I can talk forever about the nuances of shaving a carbon footprint or assessing the climate security of a supply chain but power optimization is not in my skill set. Anyone you talk to should be just as transparent about their abilities and where they end.

This is a much bigger topic and worthy of another post but for now assume that if the initial meeting is painted with too broad a brush you likely have an unrealistic consultant on your hands.

Plain-Spoken Communication- Expect that if you brought a 3rd grader with you to the meeting that the child would understand as much as you do. There are lots of jargon-y things about the business of carbon, climate, energy, resilience & sustainability. If they feel overwhelming or too complicated in the initial set of meetings you should assume that this relationship won't work. Think about it more objectively. Chances are the people in that meeting are decision makers for your organization. Decision makers tend to have a more holistic view of an company and tend to be better at viewing problems that can arise in other silos. If the consultant is confusing them you have no hope of communicating in a way that makes sense to a front-line employee. It's painful to watch a high-priced consultant or expensive internal hire unable to connect with individual contributors in other departments. No matter how good or bad the advice, if it can't be understood in a way that puts it into action, it was overpriced.

Evidence of a Structured Business- A friend completed his MBA a year ago from a top school. When asked how much time was given to sustainability & climate risk to business models he answered, "Almost none. 25 minute... maybe." Although this is rapidly changing and many schools are pushing to develop structured programs around sustainability disciplines there really isn't much yet in business schools that attracts the eager young environmentalist. As a consequence most consultants don't run their businesses particularly well. While this isn't a direct reflection on their ability to advise you on how to improve your organization it does imply that there's a disconnect in their ability to comprehend the priorities you place on activities and that can create friction. When asked about their business model an advisor should be able to tell you about their operation in such a way that shows they have the business acumen to deal with whatever you throw at them. Put another way, if they don't have a marketing arm they may not understand why it's so important that your marketing team uses all of that paper.

What else should you be looking for? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.