Corporations have long struggled to build and maintain the perfect combination of engaging work, good pay, competitive benefits and a sense of community to keep their employees – especially women - thriving. With so many studies now showing how important it is to have women in leadership positions, wouldn’t it be great if there were one framework by which corporations could be more assured of doing just that?  Well, if my conversation with Abigail Rodgers, VP of Sustainability Strategy and Communication at The Coca Cola Company is any indication, leveraging human values for the dual benefit of business and community - in all that your corporation does - is the key.

ImageWhether you’d call that sustainability or not, the point is that people are attracted to and will thrive in work that encourages (and rewards) attention to human values. Given that, it wasn’t surprising that Rodgers sees sustainability as a corporate leadership beacon, especially for women.

As the interview I expected to be more about communications strategy quickly evolved into an exploration of new ways to think about organizational sustainability engagement, three key themes emerged:

  1. Be aware of your corporation’s definition of sustainability and how that can influence employee and consumer engagement. Allow for the definition to evolve with the heat and passion of stakeholders.
  2. Remember that parenthood changes (absolutely) everything. Having children inspires a more flexible, holistic and long-term perspective, and makes it all but impossible to separate personal and business values.
  3. Amplify reach and impact through innovative collaboration among UN-usual suspects. It is amazing what good can come when people from varying corporate cultures get to know each other.

So, let’s start with the first theme. Rodgers thinks the word “sustainability” doesn’t do justice for the work. According to her, and like many a corporation, Coca Cola initially approached the topic mainly in terms of environmental issues or carbon footprint concerns. It was only when they started to look at sustainability more holistically, beyond the environmental aspects, that they saw the possibilities for maximizing the impact of all of their various efforts. And, that’s when the Live Positively platform, an umbrella commitment to making sustainability part of every strategy and action at Coca Cola, was born. The idea is that the many initiatives residing within Live Positively, which include volunteerism, community, and planet as well as products, reflect this more holistic approach. Because there are a variety of engagement or entry points, Rodgers says the multi-initiative platform “invites the entire business to participate.” It is like nothing Coca Cola has done in the twenty years she’s been part of it.

Second, and referring to that powerful sentiment (so well reflected in a Johnson & Johnson ad campaign at one point): Having a baby changes everything. Because Rodgers saw it in herself after she had her own children, she also began to notice how it changed her colleagues – both men and women. Parenthood requires flexibility, holistic thinking and a long- term perspective, and these are the same capabilities that help business leaders think more sustainably. Parenthood demands it, and sustainable thinking thrives on it.

Finally, Rodgers had much to share about collaboration. The Coca Cola Company’s several year partnership with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), and Arctic Home, their holiday fundraising campaign benefiting polar bear habitat, is one example. While watershed issues had been the initial building block for the WWF partnership, it was working together on Arctic Home that gave the interrelationships therein their first big test. In the course of the many months that Coca Cola leaders, WWF, the “To the Arctic 3D” filmmakers, and the various governmental entities all worked together, they broke through the organizational culture clash.  The parties were able to find their common ground and they learned to communicate very well in order to maintain the shared long-term vision and have the greatest impact.

Read more from Andrea Learned's exclusive Sustainability and Women series.

ImageTo put the three sustainability-encouraging themes Rodgers and I discussed in a nutshell, the advice to other sustainability-striving corporations might most simply be: question assumptions. Don’t assume a particular and set definition of sustainability. Don’t assume your employees/leadership teams leave their home values at the office door (instead, hope and pray they don’t!), and, finally, go way outside of the obvious bounds when brainstorming about potential partners.

To encourage more holistic, long-term, collaborative thinking in your company’s leadership, perhaps you too should start seeing sustainability the way Rodgers does, as a leadership beacon. Make a stronger, more integrated corporate commitment to it, and that light will shine bright.  And, it will call out to the internal and external stakeholders who’ve got the incredible skills and wisdom needed in a more thriving and sustainable future.