SUMANI Trendster Blog: Interview with Marina Dirks of S&C North America

Marina Dirks, the Principal at S&C North America, a corporate responsibility and sustainability consulting firm, spoke with SUMANI’s Aksheya Chandar about her experience getting to her esteemed position and her perspective on corporate sustainability at large.

Hi Marina, thanks so much for your time today. Why don’t we start off by you telling us a little about yourself and your background?

I grew up in Germany and at some point decided that I wanted to pursue an education in business and economics and quickly got interested in sustainability. I started in 2005, at a time when very limited standardized sustainability management education, like what you guys have, existed. For example, you could study environmental engineering, but it lacked the management perspective. I studied business and economics, and within that field, I tried to do things that have to do with sustainability. While trying to build my business background, I did internships in accounting and business development and worked with multi-national corporations (MNCs). I also tried to apply for scholarships and competitions in the field of sustainability and did an internship with the United Nations. I wrote my thesis on global governance – specifically, about public-private partnerships with the UN. I basically was forced to find creative ways to bring sustainability into my studies since there were no programs on sustainability management offered back then.

Was there a specific area of interest within the broad realm of sustainability?

I think in the end it’s all closely linked, but I was mostly interested in the management perspective of sustainability: How do you shape your business strategy and make your product portfolio to be more sustainable? Basically, general questions which one learns at the business school, from a sustainability angle. I think one of the first theories I learned about within sustainability was Porter’s value chain analysis (Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility, 2006) which talks about how to incorporate sustainability into the core business of a firm, instead of only adding corporate citizenship activities on the side. Another paper addressing the sustainability of a company’s business model that I worked with during my studies is Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt. It looks at long-term market trends and looks at how business models might get outdated over time. I find this very relevant for sustainability because I feel it encompasses the environmental, social, and governance aspects of a business and calls for ideas on how to make a business more sustainable. I am very passionate about looking at sustainability from a business perspective.

Let’s talk a little bit about where you work right now.

When I graduated from my Master’s program, I was in a situation that probably many of you are in now, in that there isn’t a standard search engine where the keyword “sustainability” can be used to find a job, unlike searching for “marketing manager” or “merchandising manager.” I relied heavily on the alumni network from both my universities which proved to be really helpful and spoke to a lot of companies that were working in sustainability. I identified S&C as one of the oldest and most recognized sustainability and corporate responsibility consulting firms in Germany. I applied, got an interview, and started three weeks later! It’s been great since then, and I feel what is great about a smaller firm is that if you’re really passionate, take ownership and produce good results, you can actually get promoted more easily than you could in a more standardized, larger corporate setting. Three years after I started at S&C in Germany, the company decided to start an office in New York. That was a huge opportunity for me as I was given the responsibility to set up and run that office. I have been here in the US since Fall 2014, and we’ve actually been quite successful since then. Things have been a lot smoother than we imagined.

And what kind of work does S&C do?

I’d say the focus is the strategic management of sustainability and everything that follows from there. We are not the person who you call for an energy audit at one of your facilities, but if you are the sustainability manager for a company and want to know things like how to understand the impact of your operations, how to develop and implement a sustainability strategy, how to set targets and develop meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, or how to manage stakeholder relationships and effectively communicate sustainability, you would call us. I find it very rewarding to be a sort of a one-stop shop to help a client with whatever they need at whatever stage they are. With some of our clients, we’ve worked over the past 10 years. We started off with a basic materiality assessment and sustainability strategy, moving on to a reporting process and to developing indicators, revising strategies, etc. Our work is very dynamic.

Do you find that your consultants travel a lot? What sort of working model do you have?

This really depends on the type of project. Most of the time we work out of our offices, coordinate over the phone, and email and visit the client whenever necessary. Being with the client is not required when we do a stakeholder survey or benchmarking analysis, but it is more important when we work on, let’s say, a sustainability strategy, projects that require a certain change process within the company.

I want to tie the next few questions to the point you raised about a mindset change. In your experience, how would you describe the state of sustainability? Is it a top-down or bottom-up push?

It’s very hard to say, “this is how it is.” Every company is at a different stage, some are lagging, while some are far ahead. If you asked me what it takes to carve a successful strategy, I would answer by saying it needs both top-down and bottom-up influence. Obviously, if the CEO doesn’t support sustainability, the scope of action and the sphere of influence is very limited. However, if it’s just the board working on the topic, it will be hard to get sustainability incorporated into the daily business – these responsibilities span across business units and functions in the organization. In the end, everyone needs to own this.

Talking about a mindset change: In an ideal state, does it make sense to have a separate sustainability practice or should everyone internalize sustainability into their own business units?

That’s exactly what it should be at some point, but I don’t think anyone is going to get there anytime soon. Some first movers are already operating that way with a lot of sustainability responsibility as an integral part of each function. To be honest, it will take time before that becomes a reality for the average company and even then, just like you have strategy functions within organizations, you will still need someone who will act as the focal point. It requires someone who knows the latest information about things like emissions calculation and policy, but also market requirements. Since this is such a cross-functional topic, you need some sort of council or board to facilitate interaction on the topic between the functions.

Ideally, sustainability needs to be embedded in all processes and policies. For example, if you don’t include it in your incentive systems, it’s very difficult to ask people to do things that might go against what they’re evaluated on. If the bonus of a purchasing manager is solely linked to the price he or she buys at, it’s difficult to expect him or her to take sustainability into account in instances where a more sustainable product would increase its price. This is a very important aspect of implementing sustainability. Furthermore, if everyone in a company is responsible, you need education and awareness-building on the topic. In the end, you may not have sustainability management degrees in the future but rather MBAs that take into account the sustainability perspective in the different subjects that are taught.

What does it mean for the challenges you face while acquiring new clients and convincing them of the relevance of a particular issue when a variety of stakeholders have different opinions? At what level do you engage?

This depends on the company — if they have a CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) or a person in charge of sustainability, we usually talk to them first. Often, when companies are more in the first steps of engaging in sustainability, they usually don’t have a single person who is responsible. In that case, it could be anyone — communications, marketing, even legal. Those in a company who are already working on sustainability don’t need to be convinced. They might rather reach out to us because they need help convincing others internally. The question is, “what are the business drivers for sustainability in that environment?” Even if I personally work in sustainability because those are my values, I need to base my recommendations on a solid understanding of my client’s business environment. You can’t just say, “this is the right thing to do,” it needs to be matched with their competency and linked to ways in which it can benefit them. Sustainability is often seen as an obligation or expectation of what stakeholders want you to do. A company certainly needs to make sure it addresses relevant topics to keep its license-to-operate, but it can do more, it can use sustainability to differentiate itself and tap into new markets.

As a consultant specializing in corporate responsibility, what role do you see yourself playing in driving strategic sustainability decisions? What skills do you deploy to do this?

The role you can play depends on who in a company you work for, the role that person plays in their organization, the stage the company is at, but also the project you work on. You can sometimes end up influencing product portfolios and sustainability strategy. If the project is to produce a sustainability report, your impact is different.

To succeed as a consultant, whether within sustainability or elsewhere, it is important to have a mix of analytical and people skills. You don’t get things done just by doing beautiful analyses; it’s an important first step but not enough. The same goes for the opposite: if you are able to engage very well but don’t base your recommendations on solid analyses, it isn’t enough. While recruiting, the skills that we look for are strong analytical and communications skills, a sense of ownership, and having a corporate mindset – meaning to understand that a company is not an NGO. In addition, the will to instigate change is required. There are a lot of people who want to make the world a better place, but do they have a solid consulting skill set?

Does a management consultant at S&C have to be a generalist?

In a way, yes, but we can have consultants specialize in certain realms. We want every consultant to be able to do a bit of everything and follow our client all the way through the process. For example, if a client wants to start with a report and do strategy later, the consultant should be able to stay with them. Over time, people develop expertise in an area and begin specialization. Working in sustainability you cannot expect a standard career path or a luxurious salary. You will also have to make more things happen yourself. But I still find working in this field very rewarding.

Having worked in a global environment, would you say there are differences in engaging with clients from different geographies? Is this difference driven by culture, goals, and priorities or a little bit of everything? How do you engage differently with a German client vs. a Chinese client when talking about sustainability, or whatever geographies you serve?

Corporate cultures differ so much. It really depends on the industry, size of the company, ownership, part of the value chain, etc. Certainly, there are national drivers like the general understanding of sustainability and the role of governments in society. Also, the regulatory frameworks are different. The culture of the company might play a larger role than a geographical culture difference. In different markets, sustainability is at different points, e.g., in Germany, you talk about, “how do I do this?” rather than, “why do I do this?”. The situation can be different elsewhere.

It’s interesting to know that it’s driven more by corporate culture than regional culture. What influence does that have on the trends exhibited in the industry? Is there a push to certain types of projects or focus on a certain set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

This obviously depends on the specific market and situation a company is in, but it is fair to say that generally speaking, pressure for more transparency is increasing from various stakeholder groups. This shows, for example, in the increasing number of questionnaires that a company receives from their investors, customers, etc., and increased number of initiatives and regulation on disclosure – e.g., SASB and the Directive on Non-Financial Reporting in Europe. Also, there is an increasing trend of measuring impact. This is important because you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Yet, there are certain topics that you cannot (yet) measure, but can’t be ignored.

With regards to linking this to the SDGs — I feel this fosters an opportunity-driven engagement, going beyond managing the impacts of your operations but using your capabilities as a company to make a positive difference in society. E.g., a food company will use its core competency and work towards battling hunger.

Thank you so much for your time today, Marina. Any parting words for sustainability students and professionals?

Be open to various possibilities — jobs aren’t standardized, you will find them in a variety of organizations, consulting firms, corporations, associations, assurance and auditing firms, engineering firms, environmental management firms, financial services firms’ ESG practices, NGOs, the UN, and governments. There are so many different ways to approach this topic and what is most important is to go out there, talk to people, get to know them, and NETWORK! This is required even more in sustainability than for any other field. I would try to look for the area you are interested in, shortlist some organizations and go directly to their website rather than just using job search sites. Not all jobs appear there as not all organizations use standardized titles/positions.

Is S&C looking to expand? Any opportunities you would like to share with our student base?

We are growing. At the moment, we have an opening for a summer intern! Information will be posted soon.

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