JoAnn Strickon, global sustainability manager at ManpowerGroup, handles more than what Americans traditionally think of as “sustainability.” This brand of sustainability revolves around creating companies that will exist a long time and leave a lasting impact on their clients, communities and employees. Her work helped the company be named a World’s Most Ethical Company Ethisphere Institute and a World’s Most Admired Company by Fortune. To learn more about her role and what makes companies sustainable, Talent Economy interviewed Strickon. Edited excerpts follow.
Talent Economy: To start out, please tell me a bit about your background and what led you to this role.
JoAnn Strickon: That’s the hardest question to answer. When I talk to other people in the field, we all come from very different backgrounds. This role of sustainability manager is relatively recent, outside of the environmental sustainability world.
We have operations in 80 countries. Our local operations often were working with the same clients, but locally, providing different kinds of services, working in different industries. That was all before web 2.0, where everybody was connected via social media or before something like Facebook even existed. We needed a way to help our people connect with each other so that they could share good practices, so that they could network amongst themselves on how we were delivering solutions to clients, how we were solving clients’ problems and challenges with our solutions, not with solutions but with our community-facing work through our innovations and the work we were doing that a lot of other companies would call social responsibility work.
It was kind of a natural evolution for me to go from running that program to this role of sustainability manager, which in essence for us is very similar. We’re very decentralized in the way we operate. Because we’re meeting local challenges and local needs around the world, the way we do that is going to be different in every country. My role as the sustainability manager, in many ways is it goes in two directions. I gather up information about what we’re doing around the world so we can report on that to all of our external stakeholders at the global level, and then I help translate for our local operations what our global priorities are, what we’re hearing from a corporate perspective so we can keep our local operations aligned to our global strategies and priorities.
TE: What are some common misconceptions about what sustainability means?
Strickon: The word sustainability, especially in the United States, is usually used to denote environmental sustainability. That’s what most people are familiar with. But when we get outside of the United States and take a more global view, sustainability is used almost interchangeably with some other terms that are much broader, like corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship.
When we broaden it to that understanding, that’s where some other terminology comes in or a bigger picture starts to emerge of sustainability as a triple bottom line. Focusing not just on corporations, focusing not just on the shareholder and profitability to shareholders, but making sure we know the expectations, demands, concerns of our other stakeholders. So what do our clients care about? What do our people care about? Our employees are probably the biggest stakeholder for most corporations. What do our communities care about and want to see us address through our resources, through our investments? What are the big problems?
Increasingly, we are seeing people, consumers and communities take the approach that corporations, organizations, for-profit organizations are best positioned and it’s only through the work of for-profit organizations that some of the biggest sustainable development challenges are going to be solved. We have the resources and ability to invest. There is actual money to be made in investing in solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. These are not just environment challenges. Climate change and climate-created challenges are very big and very important, and there are a lot of other challenges that require focusing on social sustainability. What I mean by social sustainability are things like where the direct investment comes into focusing on people. This is where we see conversations and discussions about things like diversity.
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Skills, for us at ManpowerGroup, that’s our biggest area of focus — skills and employment. If we can make sure that people understand what skills are going to be needed for the next generation of jobs, then people can be prepared and they can have sustainable employment. They can have careers that will allow them to support their families and meet their own personal goals. That will solve some challenges like poverty and inequality and even perhaps go toward solving some of the human rights issues that we’re seeing and hearing. That’s where sustainability is very broad and almost takes on the nuance based on who’s talking.
Making sure that you have the right talent to meet the needs of your business today and into the future is a sustainability issue for every organization, whether it’s a large, for-profit multinational or a small, nonprofit community organization. Talent is a sustainability issue that everybody needs to address.
Another misunderstanding about sustainability is that it’s only about philanthropy. Sustainability or corporate responsibility is not just about charity or philanthropy or what you do out of the goodness of your heart. It actually is about making sure that an organization’s leadership understands where their areas of opportunity are, where their areas of risk are and then taking the actions that are needed to address those risks, to mitigate them and to take advantage of the opportunities. That doesn’t sound different from business in general, but it becomes about sustainability when you’re looking toward creating long-term value and taking into account all of the different stakeholders that you could be creating value for.
TE: ManpowerGroup was recently named a World’s Most Ethical Company by Ethisphere Institute and World’s Most Admired Company by Fortune. What goes on behind the scenes for a company like ManpowerGroup to receive these accolades?
Strickon: Fundamentally, these accolades are a reflection of the values that have run throughout our organization for the past 70 years, starting from the top. Our founder, Elmer Winter, believed that our company had a mission beyond just delivering a profit to shareholders; that we could also contribute to society by providing meaningful and sustainable employment.
Today our leadership continues to set the tone and takes responsibility for the company’s culture. From a leadership standpoint, it’s crucial that the expectations of what it means to be an ethical company are made crystal clear to all of our people. We do this through our code of business conduct and ethics, which addresses topics that go beyond traditional company codes. Our code of conduct is not just about bribery, corruption or cybersecurity; it is our moral compass. It’s about making sure that we live up to our responsibility to being a positive contributor to societal change. And it’s about our commitment and responsibility to each other, to ensuring everyone is treated with respect and dignity, enabled to bring their best self to work and empowered to reach their full potential.
TE: How have you seen ManpowerGroup’s ethical business practices and sustainable working strategies evolve in recent years?
Strickon: We’re in the midst of a skills revolution, where technology is disrupting the way work gets done and changing the skills companies need at an unprecedented speed. The result is that today’s job-seekers don’t always have the skills to meet employers’ demands. With so many people feeling increasingly disconnected from employment opportunities, it’s become an ethical imperative to upskill America’s workforce.
We have to understand the skills that people will need, and then make sure they have access to the right learning opportunities. Classroom learning alone isn’t going to cut it. And with the pace of change, people have to continually develop their skills to progress their careers.
We have developed a groundbreaking partnership with Rockwell Automation that is upskilling veterans for roles in digital manufacturing. And our nationwide MyPath program is helping thousands accelerate their careers with assessments, training, coaching and guidance designed to identify and match them to areas of highest potential and demand. This is the work we love to do. And it’s what fuels our culture.
TE: Do you have any parting advice for business leaders hoping to make their workplaces more sustainable and ethical?
Strickon: What makes an organization ethical and sustainable are really the same thing in many ways. So one of them would be make sure everybody understands what your shared purpose is, and connect that to their job.
Trust is really essential. People have to know that you mean what you say and that you say what you mean. If you have one set of standards that apply for some people and another set that apply to other people, that’s not going to cut it. Everybody needs to understand what the expectations are, what the ethical and moral standards are of the company, and it needs to be clear to everyone that those standards apply across the board. They need to see their leaders acting in ways that are consistent with those standards. Be very visible in how you act and how you’re walking the talk.
Finally, we have respect. Show people that they are appreciated, that what they do matters and that who they are matters. I’ve heard many times that a simple recognition goes a lot farther than any kind of big, fancy rewards scheme. Make sure people know that you see the contribution they’re making and that you recognize it’s coming from them as an individual in all of their uniqueness, and acknowledge it.
Lauren Dixon is senior editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.