Putting Political Strategy Skills to Work in Retail Sustainability | Net Impact

Putting Political Strategy Skills to Work in Retail Sustainability

Rob Kaplan, Senior Manager of Sustainability, Walmart

Political strategy. Wine and spirits. Big-box stores. These are not the most obvious stops on a career path that winds its way through the issues of corporate responsibility. Yet Rob Kaplan’s path has traversed this territory and more. As a senior manager of sustainability at Walmart, Rob works on reducing the company’s supply chain-related carbon emissions. So what does it take to end up in a dedicated sustainability role at one of the world’s most influential multinational retailers? The route isn’t as straight and narrow as you might think…

Smart strategy lands those early opportunities

After earning an undergrad degree in political communication, Rob went to work as a policy advocate, first as a consultant at a boutique political consulting firm, and then directly at a policy-oriented nonprofit. His experiences working on behalf of national environmental and education causes led him to start asking questions about whether legislative change on its own was really making enough of an impact. What if, Rob thought, there was a way to get businesses to proactively embody the spirit behind policies and regulations, as leadersinstead of mere compliers?

Essentially, he wanted to learn to make the business case for the causes he believed in – which is one of the things that led him to enroll in the Haas School of Business. In one of his capstone courses there, he completed a project for Fetzer Wines, a flagship sustainability brand of Brown-Forman Corporation, helping to determine how the company could communicate its sustainability efforts to consumers. The project landed Rob an internship at Brown-Forman. It was the perfect “in.”

Or was it? Rob’s boss made it very clear there was no opportunity for a full-time position after he graduated. In his exit interview, his boss asked him a theoretical question: what would you do for us if you worked here full-time? “I wrote my dream job description,” says Rob, “which was a combination of corporate responsibility, sustainability, and marketing. A few months later, they offered me the job.”

Soft skills solve hard challenges

When asked what success looks like for someone focused on CSR, Rob points to a project that required his entire skill set – marketing savvy, business training, and his ability to improvise. He explains that when Brown-Forman was looking to make a difference on the issue of drunk driving, he studied the successes of previous campaigns and solicited proposals from cutting edge consumer research organizations.

And then he ran into budget roadblocks when completing primary research. So he found a lower cost way to produce a successful communications campaign - through the power of partnership. In collaboration with the Ad Council, he leveraged the “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” campaign across numerous Brown-Forman brands, maximizing the reach of the company’s critical message. To make this happen, Rob had to motivate numerous internal teams and convince the folks that held the purse strings to prioritize these efforts and messages. This took a political savvy that, in some ways, transcended the hard skills he needed to pull off the nuts and bolts of the campaign.

But Rob doesn’t see success as a cue to sit back and relax. “Once I stop learning, it’s a red flag that I need to start exploring a new opportunity.” When a colleague at Walmart who was familiar with Rob’s work reached out, he immediately recognized the opportunity in front of him. “My personal career philosophy has always been ‘go where you can make the most impact,’ says Rob, “and the Walmart job provides phenomenal opportunity for impact. The scale is arguably unparalleled. It was a natural next step for me to take the skills I developed at Brown-Forman and apply them to this larger platform.”

Rob's advice

Post-business school, Rob’s been involved in everything from green packaging initiatives to socially responsible marketing models. Here are a few things he’s learned:

  • Vocabulary matters: Part of what has made Rob’s work in CSR effective is that he took pains to learn the vocabulary of the company he works for. Having great ideas is fantastic, but they can’t go anywhere unless you put them in a language your colleagues can understand. Just don’t confuse vocabulary with jargon – it can be just as limiting to your communication.
  • Get comfortable with disappointment: Patience is essential in the CSR world. You’re trying to move a mountain, to take an existing infrastructure and move it in a different direction. That doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t let the absence of big wins obscure the fact that persistence does make a significant difference over the long haul.
  • Build relationships internally: A lot of CSR work is project based. This can make it difficult for colleagues to remember you’re part of the ongoing work of the company. Rob goes out of his way to get to know people in different departments and understand their priorities. This has helped him gain credibility with his co-workers and allowed him to become more imbedded in the company’s day-to-day operations.
  • Apply your core skills: If you’re interested in sustainability work but aren’t sure where to focus, a good way to start is by identifying your core skill set. For Rob, it was marketing and communications. Look at how you can apply your core skills to an organization and you’ll probably be barking up the right tree.