Rob KaplanAs part of the Center for Responsible Business’ 10th anniversary, we are running a series of posts from alumni, students and faculty.  Rob Kaplan, Haas MBA ’07, Senior Manager, Sustainability at Walmart, shares how his CRB experience shaped his approach to sustainability at two very different companies:  Walmart and Brown-Forman.  Please join us at our 10th Anniversary Celebration March 20th 6-8 PM (register HERE).

Driving Sustainability Change

Corporate responsibility and sustainability work is like moving a mountain – it’s a game of inches.  While studying at Haas and the Center for Responsible Business (CRB), I learned how to flip that seemingly impossible task into a driver for change.

Strategic Corporate Responsibility:  Leverage Core Competency

I distinctly remember a session in my Strategic Corporate Responsibility course where Kellie McElhaney drove home the point that leveraging a firm’s core competency should be the basis of any sustainability strategy.  At the time, I remember thinking, “OK, I get it. It seems kind of straight forward.” But over the last few years, in two very different companies with different approaches, the idea has proven a guiding principle for me.

Making the Mountain Move at Brown-Forman

brown picTo make the mountain move the way you want it to, you need to understand where its power comes from.  You need to align with that power center and leverage it.  As a colleague once told me, “It’s a lot easier to hitch your car to a moving train than build the momentum yourself.”

While at Haas, I was part of a team CSR project for a winery owned by Brown-Forman (my future employer).  Brown-Forman’s aim is to be the “best brand builder in the industry.”  And, success of the project depended on leveraging this core competency.  As we explored the winery’s heritage and brand positioning, we developed a marketing strategy that built ownable differentiation around sustainability.  Over time, this integration allowed the brand to invest dollars into programs that built the brand and achieved social good – at the same time.

Moving onto Walmart

wind-turbine-red-bluff_129930577387958200_300x190Building on this experience, I took on the role of senior sustainability manager at Walmart, whose mission and purpose is to save people money so they can live better.  It’s simple and clear to understand.  I spend most of my time working on a corporate commitment to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the supply chain.  But, when I communicate about the work, I rarely discuss the goal itself:  “20 million” is too hard to wrap your head around; “Metric tons” sounds too British; and “greenhouse gas” is invisible.  I’ve already lost my audience.  Instead, we view GHG as an indicator of supply chain waste – something anybody interested in saving customers money can get behind.

Spending your days playing a game of inches is not for everyone — of course, moving a couple inches at Walmart can really add up.  But, it takes a certain personality and a special level of patience.  I’m an advocate at heart and it works for me, but to those considering a similar path, I would encourage you to do some soul searching and decide if you would be happy in that kind of role.


Previous A Recipe for the Ideal CSR Position: Tips from Erin Reilly, Haas MBA ’04 Next Join us March 20, 2013 for Leading Sustainable Change Workshop & 10-Year Evening Celebration