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George Washington B-School Brings MBA Students Sustainability

Public policy professor says MBA students want meaningful careers, not just paychecks

Wed Sep 30 2015

MBA graduates are looking for meaningful careers, not just jobs in which they merely get a paycheck, according to Jennifer Griffin, professor in the Public Policy Department at George Washington School of Business (GWSB).

As a growing number of millennials opt for careers which can positively impact on society, Jennifer says business schools play a huge role in championing sustainable business practices.

GWSB for example, pioneers this approach through its Office of Sustainability. Several student-led groups also lead in this area, including the Net Impact and GW Energy Group clubs.

Companies are increasingly seeking to recruit talent through sustainability initiatives such as impact investing, and are putting a financial value on this, while also collaborating with rivals to achieve their impact goals.  

Yet business faces great difficulty in aligning sustainability targets with profit targets. Jennifer highlights the fact that too often, the financial mind-set is about sustainability being an insurance policy after a company has suffered through a loss in reputation.

A key example of such reputational damage is oil giant BP, which in July this year settled on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for $18.7 billion.

What role can business schools and their students play in championing sustainable business practices?

Business school play a huge role in championing sustainable business practices as thought leaders, conveners of the next generation of executives, disseminators of best practices, and showcasing top talent that demands evidence of CSR in the businesses they are willing to interview with.

By bringing business expertise in financials, operations and human relations, top business schools are showcasing how sustainability is interwoven into everyday business decisions.

Making a difference for employees, the business, their communities and the planet is a win-win-win for all.

Are companies becoming more comfortable with collaboration to achieve their environmental goals?

Some companies are becoming more comfortable with collaborating to achieve environmental success. GWSB offers a very popular public-private partnering (PPP) course that gets into the nitty-gritty of partnering for the long-term to deal with entrenched, wicked issues.

Collaborative partnering is not for everyone! It takes patience, constant communication, a top-down commitment to the program, and willingness to persevere through the inevitable hiccups that emerge in PPPs.

What challenges do companies face in aligning sustainability goals with profitability?

The core challenge for companies in aligning their social and environmental sustainability goals with bottom line profitability is understanding how the programmes are explicitly linked to the business.

Rather than a sponsorship or a give-a-way, sustainability in the 21st Century is about how a company makes it money. The mind-set for sustainability might be savings in carbon, water or energy costs. Or, the mind-set might be about innovating with new, experimental business models, such as microfinance activities in banks and new lines of businesses for consultancies.

All too often, though, the financial mind-set is about sustainability being an insurance policy after a company has suffered through a loss in reputation.

In these instances, rather than sustainability programmes being an inclusive, integrative, forward-looking program to attract and retain top talent, for example, sustainability programs becomes a short-term and perhaps ill-conceived response to a crisis.

By being on the back foot in a defensive posture with a cost-centric mind-set, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to move sustainability programs to a front foot, forward-looking investment that creates a win-win.

Companies argue sustainability and impact practices drive employee engagement and help them recruit talent, particularly among younger executives. Is this the case and particularly for your students?

Absolutely! GWSB graduates are looking for meaningful careers, not just jobs in which they merely get a paycheck.

Critically evaluating a company on what the business does above and beyond what is expected, above and beyond their rivals, [and] above and beyond merely creating value just for shareholders, is an important question they ask of recruiters.

Are companies putting a financial value on this?

Yes, some companies are better than others and some companies are learning more rapidly than others. Corporations with well-developed impact investing and risk assessment, as well as international development programs, are leading the way in understanding how to monetize the impacts of corporations — how value is created and destroyed — with the obvious goal being to create net positive value while mitigating harm.

Think about BP and the Gulf oil spill in 2010 — five years ago, who would have thought that shrimpers, fisheries, tourist agencies and local communities up and down the Gulf of Mexico were key constituencies for BP?

Their businesses and communities felt the impact of the spill and they were not shy in asking for remunerations. With the numerous lawsuits, and the millions of dollars promised and paid to these constituencies alongside the significant and sudden drop in stock price, BP is likely rethinking how it impacts many constituencies across the many offshore drilling platforms it operates.