VP EHS: Endangered Species or Emerging Hybrid?Dec 5th, 2011 | By Scott Nadler | Category: Environmental Management, Health and Safety, Sustainability
It’s not comfortable being an environmental, health, and safety vice president (EHS VP) in an American company any more. But it might be a great opportunity.
The Threat: Endangered Species?
In this “as good as it gets” economic recovery, companies are intent on growing the top line while minimizing costs. Corporate staffs are shrinking or disappearing entirely. Traditional EHS functions, such as auditing, due diligence, remediation, and compliance, are considered to be doing well if no one in management has to think about them. If substantial money must be spent on these areas (outside remediation), the budget increasingly lies with business units, not with corporate staff.
In the face of complacency and distraction from above, a traditional corporate EHS operation is a low-visibility, low-priority effort. Hopefully. If traditional EHS issues rise to a level of corporate attention now, it is almost certainly because something has gone terribly wrong. In general, that’s not a great career move. Either the EHS head will be replaced, the EHS function will be assigned to some other executive “who can give it more attention and guidance,” or both will occur.
The traditional EHS role also faces internal competition from other groups taking on parts of the broader sustainability agenda. Communications groups are most active in moving into this space. They often label this as corporate social responsibility (CSR) or corporate citizenship, demonstrating their focus and differentiating the area from EHS content. Alternatively, marketing groups may make a play for the elements of sustainability around products, packaging, and positioning—although they usually look to EHS or someone else to provide the technical content.
In this context, EHS VPs who keep their heads down and do their jobs well may be highly skilled, highly valuable, highly overworked—and highly likely to be headed to extinction. There will still be an EHS function in their company. However, instead of being led by a VP reporting to the C-suite, it will be headed by a director reporting one or two levels down to the law department. This distinction isn’t just about the EHS head’s ego, salary, or career. It also means limitations or even outright reduction in the EHS function’s budget, access to senior management, and influence on the company’s performance.
The Opportunity: Emerging Hybrids
Entrepreneurial EHS leaders are keeping and expanding their roles by moving beyond their traditional comfort zones. By taking on additional areas of opportunity or risk for their company, these leaders are keeping the EHS seat at the big table—and salvaging or even promoting their own careers in the process.
EHS VPs are creating these new hybrid roles by combining traditional EHS functions with responsibility for more visible opportunities or risks. They are expanding their business focus to include opportunity as well as risk, expanding their process focus to go farther outside the fence line, or expanding in both directions (see Figure 1).
The easiest moves involve expanding EHS’s business or process focus, but not both at the same time. For example:
- By staying inside the fence line but going beyond risk to opportunities, EHS can move into new areas such as carbon or energy efficiency.
- By stepping outside the fence line but staying in the risk quadrant, EHS can move into the areas of business continuity and broader risk management.
Moving along both dimensions at once—shifting from risk inside the fence line to opportunities outside the fence line—is a bit more daunting, although some EHS VPs have succeeded. To reach this goal, EHS often has to move more incrementally. Instead of attempting to be a direct player in this space, EHS will start as either
- A supplier of technical content to another function (e.g., providing environmental product regulatory or life cycle services to marketing) or
- A convener of other functions, seeking to bring them to the table rather than claiming the seat for EHS directly
Some EHS VPs have made the leap directly and have even had “sustainability” added to their title. This move has been highly successful for some EHS leaders, but for others the added title is an empty label that comes with little clear expansion of their substantive scope. They still find themselves sparring with other groups for that “outside the fence” or “opportunity” space. EHS VPs find that having the sustainability label with no substantive sustainability program just trivializes the label and ultimately the function—and can lead to losing the job entirely.
When the expansion is a logical extension of EHS’s skills and credibility, though, the hybrid role can be highly successful. These hybrid roles—EHS Plus—have a much higher value and visibility inside a company. In one US$ 5+ billion global company, for example, a VP attempted to make the leap from traditional EHS to broader sustainability but failed, and he was ultimately moved to another position. His top lieutenant stayed focused on expanding along the risk line, taking on first real estate and then some risk management and business continuity planning functions. He not only won the VP job but survived CEO turnover to find his job elevated to Senior VP reporting directly to the new CEO. Clearly, that’s been a great career move.
More importantly, this outcome gave the EHS leader the opportunity to be at the table, protecting EHS from cuts, getting the EHS agenda to the top of the company when needed—and helping to protect the company from the outside world, the outside world from the company, and the company at times from itself.
What particular hybrid is right for any particular VP or company? That depends on many specifics, including personality, skills, circumstances, and corporate strategy and structure. Regardless of the hybrid selected, though, successful EHS VPs are learning that they must adapt to changing circumstances and seize the initiative on issues with high EHS relevance—or risk becoming an endangered species heading toward decline and extinction.
About the Author
Scott Nadler is a Partner in the Chicago, U.S.A. office of Environmental Resources Management (ERM). He helps companies integrate environmental and sustainability issues with business strategy. Mr. Nadler speaks on a number of EHS, sustainability, and strategy topics. Recent conference appearances include Northwestern University’s Summit on Sustainability; Chemicals Forum Europe 2011; and Minnesota’s “Health Care That’s Healthy” sustainability conference. Mr. Nadler’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Sloan Management, and Safety and Health Practitioner, as well as in the EHS Journal and The Palladium Group Executing Strategy sites online. He also teaches at Northwestern University, both as a Lecturer in Social Enterprise at the Kellogg School of Management and in the undergraduate program in Environmental Policy and Culture.
Other Articles by Scott Nadler in the EHS Journal
- Geographic Mismatch: Coping with Dislocation in the Global Economy
- Agility: The New Core Competency for EHS and Sustainability
- Managing Product Risks and Opportunities (with Salvatore Giolando)
Photograph: Power Button by Orlando Alonzo, Campeche, Mexico.