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Knowledge is only powerful if you earn the trust of your stakeholders. This was a key theme of Presidio alum and 2023 commencement keynote speaker Sunya Norman’s commencement address to Presidio’s graduating class of 2023. Norman, the VP of ESG Strategy and Engagement at Salesforce and a Presidio MBA in Sustainable Management graduate, shared advice for graduates and aspiring sustainability professionals – namely, the three tenets of gaining stakeholder trust for professionals in the ESG field. Read on for a shortened version of Norman’s commencement remarks.

Today’s business executives must navigate interconnected crises at a faster pace than ever before. Climate change, racial injustice, social inequalities, a global pandemic, geopolitical conflict, and economic uncertainty — these historic challenges have enormous, far-reaching consequences on our way of life.

As business leaders, we need to understand and navigate a complex set of dynamics, including rising expectations from stakeholders like employees and investors, changing customer preferences, and new pressures like supply chain disruptions and resource scarcity.

But there is good news. Namely, a new day for executive leadership is dawning. This is ESG’s moment.

Now, more than $30 trillion is managed using sustainable strategies — that’s nearly one dollar in every three under management. And a recent survey found that 82% of the global workforce wants their company to be more sustainable, too.

Major governments are moving towards mandatory reporting on the impact of corporate activities on the environment and society. And stakeholders are becoming much more sophisticated and have heightened expectations.

As leaders, we have to think and act beyond just revenue — beyond just margin. We have to create value for all stakeholders.

It’s a new day for investors.
It’s a new day for customers.
It’s a new day for top talent.

For anyone who doesn’t have extensive paid sustainability or business experience just yet, understanding social, environmental, and governance issues deeply is a distinctive advantage.

However, remember that knowledge is only truly powerful if you also earn the trust of your stakeholders.

Business success can appear objective. Profits are profits, revenue, revenue — costs, costs. But the truth is perception and sentiment play an enormous role in long-term business success.
So how do you earn and sustain trust?

Tenet One

I believe it starts with meeting people where they are. And I chose that term intentionally. People. Because what are organizations at the end of the day but a whole lot of people?

Before I walk into a board room, I like to imagine what human emotions might be at play. What does this person want? What do they need? What are they afraid of? What stories do they want to tell themselves about who they are and what they stand for? How can what I have to offer help win their hearts and minds?

I’ve personally witnessed how participating in ESG activities can be a lifeline for the unmoored and uninspired in corporate America. Our job as sustainability leaders is to open the door to welcome others to this important shared journey.

Just this past quarter, employee volunteers from our technology and product organization put together the Sustainability Guide for Salesforce Technology in partnership with the Sustainability team. This resource provides technologists with best practices to reduce the environmental footprint associated with software development. With green code and encouraging our customers to be more efficient with their code and operations, we’re also reducing Salesforce’s cost to serve. Win, win.

This is what it looks like to welcome others on the journey.

Tenet Two

A seemingly simple aspect of earning trust is staying consistent.

Don’t let up. Tell your stakeholders who you are, and then work every day to live up to that vision. This part can’t be rushed, but know your investment will pay off. When I first arrived at Salesforce, I joined a team building a sustainability strategy for our annual event Dreamforce. For those who don’t know about Dreamforce, it’s the world’s largest software conference in downtown San Francisco every year. Events are Salesforce’s love language, and Dreamforce is its ultimate expression. But if put together wrong, Dreamforce could be the definition of anti-sustainability: a big, pop-up event put up and taken down in just over a week. So we took it one step at a time. We found values-aligned vendors and focused on small operational wins. We next added a digital attendee option. Then, we kept raising the bar each year and finally put sustainability on the agenda. This past year, Al Gore and Jane Goodall gave sustainability keynotes to millions.

One year at a time, we turned Dreamforce into a pillar of our sustainability strategy and brought our values to life for our entire ecosystem.

Tenet Three

Becoming a business leader as well as a sustainability subject matter expert.

Soak up as much understanding as you can about the core business. What are the biggest revenue drivers? Where are the centers of influence? Who holds political capital? What sector-specific jargon do you need to be fluent in?

Above all, listen to what other functional leaders have to say about their areas of expertise. Through this sort of deep listening, you’ll start to identify that beautiful overlap between business strategy and environmental & social change. For example, Salesforce now conducts regular equal pay audits of our entire workforce. This initiative came directly from actioning employee feedback on where we could improve and then leveraging our HR executives’ compensation expertise.

Collaboration is really the engine of corporate ESG.

And remember:

Bring your humanity to work and meet people where they are
Stay consistent over time
And learn the business intimately

You will be rewarded for being proactive and adopting a longer-term, more inclusive mindset. You’re not sitting back waiting for the future to arrive — you are shaping that future today.

About the Author / Anna Larson

As Presidio’s Communications Manager, I aim to create and deliver compelling stories that help recognize and amplify the vital and unique work and people within Presidio's growing community of students, alums, faculty, staff, and partners. My mission is to use storytelling to support mission-driven people and organizations working at the forefront of social justice and environmental movements. 

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