If yesterday’s business leadership research pointed to independence, head down, numbers, facts and figures as the key, today’s sustainability leaders need to move in the opposite direction. They need to get comfortable with interdependence, head up, emotions, stories and all that is human. In other words, the more feminine of human qualities are behind more sustainable thinking and doing. While emphasizing qualities like communications skills, relational understanding and long-term focus seem elemental to those of us in sustainability and CSR-related fields, all the Harvard Business School studies in the world couldn’t force a traditional, more typically masculine quality-oriented business into such a paradigm shift.  Until now.

Read more in the Women and Sustainability series

ImageEnter social media, where relating one person to another, is the name of the game.  Only after you’ve forged connections, built support, seen the long term and proven your worth in broader discussions – all of which has to happen, or risk grave failure, in social networks - can any of the rest of your sustainability work be done.

To “do” social media constructively, the qualities your business brain is likely less familiar with, the feminine ones, must become more developed (through practice!). And, for sustainability’s sake, it is beyond worth the threat of any initial discomfort. We live in a time when digital technology provides simple frameworks through which the global need for sustainable business practices can become (and is already becoming) a local conversation, among friends.

Let’s break down several of the ways women tend to connect and translate so well in social media:

Build relationships before you “need” them: Crisis counselors and psychologists will tell you, those people who have a wider foundation of friendships will best weather the ups and downs in their lives.  Take one look around you, and you’ll have to admit that women seem to naturally do better at this.  Well, social media forces this foundation-building issue.  Topics are raised and can be connected over in real-time.  Before you know it, you’ve built a solid network of people ready to serve as resources or support for almost any purpose your company may have – and those people firmly believe you’d do the same for them.

Start relationships through common interests: To build a long-term, foundational, relationship, you can’t simply start by pushing out information about your great product or services.  Similar to a cocktail party environment, such behavior just isn’t polite in this sphere. So, rather than positioning yourself or your company for the one-up, one-down status game (which rarely works at a cocktail party, by the way), connect over shared experiences as soccer kid parents or are big unicycling fanatics, or are passionate about energy efficiency. Find even one thing to share, and that’s a huge stakeholder engagement advantage.  Social media lights the way.

Take it slow and steady: For the sake of business you DO want to form long-term relationships, and your more feminine qualities will guide you to trust that the small outreach efforts you find time to make through social media will deliver a future, worthwhile connection.  You can see this just by taking a look at the existing social media conversations hashtagged with (noted as) #sustainability or #csr, for instance.  Follow the discussion of your topic of choice, share information when you are ready and thank people for engaging with you along the way.  Relationships started in this way can easily evolve into results like a consultant getting a contract, a conference planner identifying a great speaker, or a sustainable supply chain vendor connecting with a new account. Slow and steady is the feminine-quality-driven way to develop sustainable business networks.

Doing business used to mean keeping human values off the table, and focusing on the straightforward numbers, facts and figures.  Keeping today’s sustainable economy thriving and growing, however, means stopping to truly see people and developing relationships before going any further.  The helpful fact is that the social media discipline demands this, and using it can be an incredibly fruitful way to put your more social and relational qualities into play. Developing the best sustainability-oriented business vision and practices, using Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn (to name but a few networks), is a necessary but doable challenge. It is a challenge at which each of our more feminine selves can come to thrive.

*Note: I am no expert, but I am fairly active on Twitter @AndreaLearned and Google+, so follow me if you are curious (and want to find other great sustainability-oriented folks to follow).

Sustainable Business Forum is also on Google+ and Twitter. as @SustainableB1z