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By: Terry F. Yosie, Andrew Hoffman and Rick Bunch

Few problems pose greater difficulties for corporate executives than today’s sustainability issues. Complex and rapidly changing science, multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas, societal disruptions and policy uncertainty create unique and constantly shifting circumstances for each issue that arises, taxing any leader’s professional experience and education. Cookie-cutter approaches don’t work, and the ability to think systemically and cross-culturally is at a premium.

Such challenges call for fresh approaches to preparing leaders to implement sustainable business solutions, and for creative cross-sectoral partnerships to address today’s problems. In order to meet these challenges, we need innovation in educational curriculum and training that reaches beyond the classroom and engages business leaders more directly to help students understand contemporary realities and apply their knowledge to improve both living standards and planetary conditions.

Seeking the fresh insights that come from innovative collaborations, the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the World Environment Center recently announced a new partnership to provide graduate students with direct access to senior level sustainability executives of global companies in WEC’s membership and business networks. Through this partnership, students will obtain direct experience on how companies evaluate and apply sustainability-related data and formulate decision-making options.

The program, called the Erb/WEC Fellowships, will be supported by IBM as part of the company’s long-term commitment to environmental sustainability and developing next-generation skills for the 21st-century workforce. IBM was recently recognized for the second consecutive year as the greenest company in the U.S., according to the Newsweek 2012 Green Rankings survey, and is working with WEC and other companies to solve major sustainability challenges.

WEC’s business model is unique in its “direct, on-the-ground” application of sustainable development strategies and practices in developed and emerging markets. It convenes customers and suppliers to solve problems, helps integrate sustainable development into business operations and assesses business relevant strategies and processes across multiple sectors.

Erb/WEC Fellows will take an active role in WEC’s thought leadership innovation Roundtables by identifying potential speakers; synthesizing research; participating as speakers; preparing course materials and communications to the professional sustainability community; and developing articles, blogs and social media communications on Roundtable results. Students chosen to participate will then prepare research papers suitable for publication.

WEC’s partnership with the Erb Institute puts into action the recommendations of its publication last October, with Net Impact, of “Business Skills for a Changing World: An Assessment of What Global Companies Need from Business Schools.” The report was based on a 2010 WEC roundtable hosted by IBM and Roche in which representatives of global corporations, academia and non-governmental organizations met to discuss the teaching of sustainability, the needs of the marketplace, and opportunities for better alignment between the two. This event was supplemented by in-depth interviews conducted by Net Impact and WEC with approximately 35 senior sustainability executives in different business sectors across geographic regions.

The report includes a review of the skill sets required of new MBA hires who plan to work in companies that are actively implementing sustainability programs. According to the executives interviewed, the balance between inward-looking technical and management skills, outward-focused communications, and customer and stakeholder management skills is a priority for nearly all companies represented in the report. Specifically, global companies are seeking skill sets such as: understanding of systems thinking and the management of complexity; the role of global management systems; the relationship between risk mitigation and cost savings; the relationship of sustainability to science and innovation; the application of life cycle analysis to products and business processes; interpersonal skills across multicultural project teams; and communications skills with customers, external business partners and stakeholders.

Erb Institute MBA/MS students presently benefit from an interdisciplinary approach and breadth of faculty expertise that answer many of the needs highlighted in the WEC-Net Impact report. The Erb/WEC Fellowships will add to that experience by bringing them practical and focused experience with the business planning process. Formed in 1996 and now numbering about 90 current students and over 320 alumni, Erb’s three-year dual-degree program was among the first educational efforts to bring together business and environment and stands as the largest dual-degree program in student and alumni head count. Students earn an MBA from Michigan’s highly ranked Ross School of Business, the only school to place in the top ten in every edition of the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking of social and environmental content in MBA programs worldwide.

Concurrently, the students earn a Master of Science (MS) from UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), itself a top US school of environment. Adding in special sustainability content and other training the Institute provides, MBA/MS students graduate with a set of skills, knowledge and perspectives that resonate closely with the recommendations of the WEC-Net Impact report.

As important as the curriculum content is, the dynamic and emergent field of sustainable business cannot be mastered exclusively in the classroom. Erb students bring ample action-based learning experience to the fellowships, earned in the Ross School’s renowned Multidisciplinary Action Projects and in the year-long, field-based master’s projects they complete with client organizations as part of the MS degree. In addition, because they are enrolled in the MBA/MS program for three years, the students complete two summer internships, allowing for greater exploration and professional development before they seek a full-time job. All the same, the Erb/WEC Fellowships will provide an additional and unique action-based learning opportunity for the students. By working closely with senior sustainability executives on their most pressing issues, students will gain deeper insight into the complexity of addressing sustainability issues in organizational contexts, and clearer understanding of what will be required for them to be effective change agents in their future companies.

In turn, the insight and commitment that the graduate students bring to the fellowships will advance WEC’s objectives by assuring that Roundtable agendas, discussions and outputs are informed by the thought leadership of one of the world’s top academic sustainable enterprise organizations. The students will follow up the meetings by researching major questions that arise and publishing white papers that will share learnings widely and set the agenda for future research and discussions.

For WEC member executives, who need to make decisions quickly and rarely have time to dive deeply into an issue, the benefit will arise from having smart, committed graduate students develop data, identify precedents and relevant research; follow up on questions that arise during the Roundtables; and publish findings to ensure that learnings are shared. Both sides hope, as well, that WEC’s corporate leaders will view the MBA/MS Fellows as a reservoir of talent nicely tailored to their hiring needs.

As sustainability becomes more complex and challenging, so must the education models we develop to meet those challenges. The Erb/WEC Fellowships represent but one step in that direction, training the sustainability managers of tomorrow. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of the Roundtables and of this innovative partnership.