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EMC's Sustainability Chief Changing Company's Value System

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"I think I'm in the perfect job – not only because every wants their job to make a difference in the world, but also because I love being in the middle of everything!"

Earlier this year, I discussed the phenomenon of "Chief Sustainability Officers" and how companies, especially post-Copenhagen, are realizing that a quick fix for their bruised reputation is to name an executive their eco-officer. It makes them look good and provides great PR.

However, these claims, for the most part, have been shallow, perfunctory and solely reputational because none of them come backed with the required business acumen and technical knowledge required to be driving sustainability in a corporation.

To understand one such chief's intentions and whether her role really gave her the independence to chart sustainability into her company's strategy, I interviewed Kathrin Winkler, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) at technology giantEMC.

Kathrin and I discussed a whole range of issues regarding her relatively new role (a little over two years), the challenges ("There will always be some skeptics around.") and her motivational drive ("My peers and I often have conversations amongst ourselves about whether our job is to put ourselves out of business. And, to some extent, I think it is.").

She has emerged as one of very few visible CSOs in the Fortune 500, who is driving sustainability at EMC top-down as well as horizontally. More importantly, driving sustainability as a work culture and as a way of the company mindset is her full-time job and doesn’t remain an additional job function, or an afterthought.

Although she admits that she created this role for herself, she clearly doesn’t fall in the typical eco-officer mold. She also emphasized that her role at EMC deals more with providing direction and changing a mindset, than doing tangible, measurable tasks on a day-to-day basis.

"What I'm trying to do is catalyze, inspire, set direction, raise awareness–everyone else has to do the work, although, it's never that simple. I see my role as setting into play the first foundational projects—drive the baseline, where do we get started, how do we drive this, why is it important, what's important, what do we want to set as our goals," she said.

Interestingly, despite being one herself, Kathrin strongly believed that not every company needed a CSO and that as long as someone represented the company's environmental initiatives, it should suffice. From all the companies I researched and surveyed last year (See the results of Vault's 2009 Green Initiatives in the Workplace), the role when generic or a part of the HR/Marketing/PR functions, remained a mere titular to fulfill a marketing requirement.

However, when it was elevated to senior management, it not only grew in importance for the leadership group, it also sent employees a stronger message of its emphasis for the company. While she agreed with my premise, sharing that her role in the C-suite definitely gave her work credibility and a voice in the board room, she did stress that it might not be a one-size-fits-all across industries. Point taken.

As she continues to ramp up EMC's energy conservation initiatives, Kathrin believes that the company will only take on challenges she believes they can accomplish. She also sees her directional and strategic role phased out once the company reaches sustainable levels of operation. Kathrin Winkler is an anomaly for now.

However, sustainability as a strategic direction is gaining ground in companies and moving from advocacy to actual implementation. There will, sooner than later, come a tipping point when all of us will have to acknowledge its incorporation one way or the other.

As a senior executive or maybe even the commander-in-chief, will you be ready?

Read the complete interview on Vault.com.

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Aman Singh is an editor with Vault and works with Fortune 500 companies on reporting their diversity recruitment strategies and initiatives.

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