At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational work looks like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of social impact and sustainability leaders who are shaping business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

To kick off the series, Greg Behrman, NationSwell’s CEO + founder, interviewed Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Verizon, who talked to us about the importance of professionalizing the field of ESG, the false premise that leaders have to choose between business opportunity and social good, and the art of “walking the halls” of your company to achieve internal buy-in on your impact initiatives. 

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Is there a defining life experience or circumstance that drew you to social impact and sustainability work?

Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief of Corporate Social Responsibility, Verizon: I grew up in a small, somewhat rural community in Arkansas, about 60,000 people at the time. My neighborhood was comprised of people who looked out for each other. If I was on my front porch when I was a little girl, I could hear the neighbors next door on their front porch. And I could hear the adults having very interesting conversations as they discussed ways to solve the issues of the city. At the same time, they were also keeping an eye out for the kids playing outside. I remember many times when an adult would pause mid-sentence and yell at someone else’s kid to course-correct their behavior.

So I grew up with this sense of the porch as a place where interesting conversations happen, where people were looking not inward, but outward; and looking outward meant sharing big ideas about the community and the world.  

All of that shaped my approach to what I do, and how I think about the world at large and communities in particular.  At a basic level, I believe we all have a responsibility to each other and a responsibility to lift up our communities.

Despite this belief, when I was building my corporate career, I had my hard hat on. It was all about P&L, and taking on really big challenges, and driving revenue, and managing sales forces, and managing union employees.  

And so when I ended up with the opportunity to focus on corporate social responsibility, it wasn’t called ESG — it was more like your company had a philanthropic arm — I was asked to take that on and make it more central and core to the strategy of Verizon.

I came into it with an agreement that it was just going to be a two-year gig, and I could go do something else afterward. But I ended up really falling in love with it because I saw so much opportunity, and so much of a space where we could think through where the world is going, where society is going, and what has to undergird decisions that we make in the business space that drive revenue — decisions that we need to make to connect our societal arm to that same space.  I remember so many conversations with one of our former CEOs encouraging me to move back into the P&L function of the business, but I honestly had no interest. I had found my happy place. 

Behrman, NationSwell:  You’ve been a leader and practitioner of ESG for some time now, and you’ve seen interesting ebbs and flows in the field. What is your assessment of this moment? How do you make sense of where we are? What are the biggest opportunities? What are the biggest watch outs or challenges about the current moment?

Kirk, Verizon: I think for anyone who has been in this field for a while, it is probably the dream that we all wanted — for this space to be viewed as important and central to a company and its strategy. But how we professionalize this space at this moment is really important:  When we hire an attorney or a lawyer, we expect a level of education or schooling, and that they have been a practitioner; when we hire an accountant, we have the same expectation. I believe that the space needs that same level of qualifications, that we are clear about how we build these ESG strategies, and that all of it is aligned with our business strategy.

It means not putting people in these roles whose qualification is their passion for purpose-driven work, but putting people in who are really capable of building qualified, scalable, measurable, authentic work. 

The big watch out of the current moment is that we’re being held accountable. Regulators are asking, “What are these targets? What are you guys talking about? What is really real here?” The sustainability space is under attack and many companies are beginning to do green-hushing. The amount of shareholder proposals and challenges to the work is mounting at a fast rate. But from my vantage point, all that is saying is that companies need to see this work and category as a professional aspect of their business. 

Collectively, this space and this scrutiny is about holding companies accountable. Authenticity matters. And that means not touting how great you are for the planet if your business and operations aren’t aligned with that; don’t jump on the racial justice bandwagon if you’re not willing to hold your leadership accountable for execution throughout the organization. I love how disciplined Verizon is about these things. We’re not fans of moonshot targets. We’re all about doing what we say and holding ourselves accountable.  

I think I drive people crazy in my ecosystem by asking, “What’s the target? What are we solving for? Was this good? Was it not? Is this a good use of time and money?” Because you can’t say after the fact it was good. You have to have everybody aligned on what we’re achieving, and then demonstrate that it was good against that set of objectives. And I’m really disciplined around that approach.

Behrman, NationSwell: How is your work at Verizon helping to professionalize the field? 

Kirk, Verizon: The first thing is the staff that I have hired. My team is comprised of experts from the education, environmental, social innovation, marketing, and finance space. It’s really interesting watching them do their jobs. They approach the work from a real customer-centric, insight-driven space. Then, those insights are used to actually create programs that align with our overarching business strategy at Verizon. 

The second thing is the manner in which Verizon investigates our work and holds us accountable for understanding issues across the spectrum, aligning the work with the priorities of the business, driving real outcomes, and demonstrating the true impact of the work. There is a strong emphasis on auditing the work and the outcomes that we communicate. Our disciplined approach to managing cost-per-program, evaluating the outcomes from our partners, and moving partners along a delivery continuum is truly best-in-class. 

The third approach is the need to really understand how Verizon makes money and the role that our work plays in contributing to that.  The work that we do requires a level of discipline across our entire ecosystem. As a result, the partners who work with us are finding that they are leveling up as well. Take for example our work in education: If you are one of our partner schools, the level of technology integration we require to be incorporated into our schools — everything from 5G labs to new 5G applications — requires our partners to aggressively enhance their understanding of edtech and the school districts to enhance their IT and other technology departments. I think this latter point shows how you can extend and expand the professional development space because of your work. The majority of my education team comes from the sector. They have spent time in classrooms in vulnerable school districts. They understand the need, they get the pedagogy.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you think about the relationship between business opportunity and social good? Do you start with one, and then think about the other?

Kirk, Verizon: I don’t know that you have to think about one before the other. You first should consider the company you work for, the assets you have, and how you can leverage them to drive societal good and potentially drive revenue. Honestly, this is easier to do when your offerings are tangible — think consumer goods. But, if you do the right level of insight work and partner well with the business, you’ll find your social innovation opportunities. 

I don’t want my team to ever be in a situation where they’re not valued. I don’t want them to be in a situation where they’re viewed as just fluff. I want really smart people that can inform the business, that are called into meetings because of their expertise, and that’s what I love. 

You must have a good strategy, the right staff, and then you’ve got to “walk the halls” to get buy-in to your strategy at the top of the house, and then be hyper-focused on outcomes. I work out of a big building with 3,000 people in it with really, really long hallways. And I used to tell my team, “I’ve got to go walk the halls, and I’ve got to get the CFO to buy into this, or, “I’ve got to get the marketing person to buy into it,” or, “I have to get IT to be willing to support it.”

When you build programs that have demonstrative measurable outcomes, you can show people the connective tissue.  Bear in mind that you might not be able to add the big, big value that you’re trying to add immediately, and it’s going to be a space where you need the business to buy into the time that it will take. But when you look at that, you’ve got to sit down and get inside of people’s heads with what they think about what you’re doing. 

I think often, people walk the hall and say, “Here’s my idea. Do you support it?” I tend to say,  “Here’s what I’m thinking of — tell me where there are holes and issues.” And I say that because one of the things I have found is that most people really like to build with you. They like to be collaborative if you give them the chance. In doing that, you get the watch outs.  When you do it up and down the value chain,  you are creating a space where people can engage and help you tie it more closely to the business.

If there’s an art to walking the halls; it’s making sure that you set a vision, you set a strategy, you know where you’re going, but you don’t sell it without getting the buy-in and without people being able to edit it. And what I love about doing that is by the time I get into the big room and the big meeting, everyone says, “Yeah. Yeah. I’m aligned. Yeah, Rose came and talked to me. She spent an hour with me on it. I’m aligned.” 

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some of the habits you practice that make you an effective leader?

Kirk, Verizon: I try to pay attention to the details. I know how this business makes money. I know where I can lean in and who I can go poke to get engaged. I’ve developed great relationships with the entire leadership table, and those are the direct reports of the CEO. I have a great relationship with the CEO. I know how to ask for help, and I know how to apply that help. And then I also know how to set a strategy, how to enable my team with the right tools, and then get the heck out of their way and let them be able to implement.

And I love it when they say, “Yeah, I hear you, but,” or, “You asked for this, but,” or, “Okay, you asked for this, but you couldn’t see these other 10 things, so I’m giving you something that’s even better than what you asked for.” And I love that. 

It’s about getting to a comfortable level in life where you can confidently get out of the way of your team, but not become disengaged, and not shrug off your responsibility so you’re still there to fight the good fight when it’s necessary. And so I think that that’s a little bit about the leadership style, and I’m so glad that it resonates across the business, and that people see that leadership, and that passion —  and my badassery when I have to be a badass.

I  also love challenging people to go places that make them feel uncomfortable and turn projects and initiatives upside down. Everyone grows as a result. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Who and what is inspiring your leadership right now?

Kirk, Verizon: I have stacks and stacks of books next to me, but I prefer to turn to my people for inspiration and insight. My team lets me know when my leadership style needs to be tweaked or fixed. It’s that learning and feedback I get from my peers: They will tell me when I need to hold back or rethink. And listening to my team and my peers, and watching the creativity that comes from them, to me is the best business lesson there is because it is real, and it is authentic, and it is helpful, and it is aligned with the world in which I live. 

And in terms of who I admire, when I first took over this role, I called Laysha Ward. Laysha is an executive vice president at Target.  I called Laysha because I had such respect for what Target was doing years ago. They set the standard for how to bring consumers into the work and to see value in it. Laysha did not know me. But, she took my call and was so generous with her time and advice. I’ll never forget that.  I have incredible respect for her and the legacy work that she did and that she continues to do. For me, your value is that you can leave a legacy; so much so that the next person who comes in behind you sees such an impact that they don’t drop your work and turn to something else, and others who once worked for you take your blueprint to other companies and duplicate your activity. That is real leadership. 

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Verizon is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.