The Secret Weapon of Effective Sustainability Project Managers

A few years ago I interviewed dozens of sustainability project managers (SPM) at medium-sized businesses to better understand what enabled their success. The interview boiled down to three questions. Think about your best sustainability project. What conditions external to your company helped you be successful? What conditions supported you within your organization to complete the project? What qualities do you possess that helped you realize a successful outcome?

One person’s answer to the last question surprised me. When I asked what it was about him that helped him complete a challenging project he said “my charisma.” He explained “Look, I was asking my co-workers to give up their lunches, nights and weekends to help our company achieve LEED green building certification. It’s a lot of work. People only spend their free time on things that are meaningful to them with people they enjoy.”

The more I thought about the most effective SPMs I knew, the more this answer made sense. The SPMs I was thinking about not only had strong technical, financial analysis, and communications skills. They also had charisma. SPMs often struggle with limited resources and need to enlist help from people in the organization that do not report directly to them. Green teams usually have employees from various departments. For the leader of the company’s sustainability efforts to be effective, they need the three essential components of charisma so they can charm people to want to help them. Those three essential elements are presence, power and warmth.

Fortunately, charisma is a quality people can cultivate. Olivia Fox Cabane’s book The Charisma Myth explains the fine points she fosters with CEOs and other leaders to help them become more influential, persuasive and inspiring. What’s interesting is that developing personal magnetism starts with figuring out which kind of charisma best fits your personality: focus, visionary, kindness or authority. Oprah Winfrey’s presence is key to her focus charisma. Apple’s Steve Jobs had visionary charisma. Radiant warmth from the Dalai Lama shows he exhibits kindness charisma. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has authority charisma.

Companies often hire sustainability managers with strong technical skills. While understanding the engineering aspects of renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation and zero waste projects are important, those sustainability managers who also have strong people skills that inspire behavioral changes will help their organization reach their ambitious sustainability goals faster.