In perhaps the most memorable career-counseling session ever served up on celluloid, the poolside conversation ran like this:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

This exchange came to mind when we were developing our latest survey of SustainAbility’s 60-person faculty, as part of a project on the future of globalization. For fun, we tacked on a final question: “If — as in that memorable scene in the film of The Graduate — you were giving career advice to a bright student on how to best make a contribution in the corporate responsibility or sustainable development fields, what would you advise, and why?”

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Choose your own adventure.

Photo: iStockphoto

With another school year rolling around in the U.S., we thought we’d share what some of these global leaders had to say. (Of course, some were too caught up in nostalgia to offer advice. “The scene I most remember from The Graduate had nothing to do with career advice,” said Andrea Spencer-Cooke from Scotland, with a wink. And Sir Geoffrey Chandler, whose career has embraced a couple of decades as a director of Shell, a decade with the public sector, and a decade helping human-rights group Amnesty connect with the world of business, mused: “How I regret not having had a Mrs. Robinson in my own undergraduate days! Different tempora, alas, different mores!” But we digress.)

“What’s brilliant about Mike Nichols’ scene,” observed Peter Kinder, president of Massachusetts-based SRI analysts Kinder, Lydenberg, Domini, & Co., “is the utter passivity ‘Plastics’ urges on Benjamin. A noun, not a verb. Acceptance of the iconic substance of the age, the very symbol of falsity in American culture … Well, there’s only one remedy for [passivity]: action. And, in the question’s context, my advice would be to pick a relatively narrow cause you’re interested in, and then in the great labor organizer’s mantra, ‘Organize! Organize! Organize!’ And when you finish, get out and organize some more!”

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Also from the U.S., and very much in the spirit of Mr. McGuire’s monosyllabicity, came: “Monetize.” This was suggested by sustainability adviser Ralph Earle, whose previous incarnations included periods with Environmental Defense and its Alliance for Environmental Innovation. “There remain too few individuals who can effectively translate the sustainable development or the corporate social-responsibility agendas into economics,” he said. “Far too often, the debate is about what’s ‘right.’ This is an inherently subjective personal and moral debate, and one which is difficult to win against intelligent and informed opposition.”

So how to proceed? “The power of economics can move companies, individuals, and governments far more effectively,” Earle continued. For example, he said, “the U.S. tobacco industry has been hugely impacted by the economic impact of lawsuits and anti-smoking laws and advertising. The moral arguments that the anti-smoking community makes fall on largely deaf ears in the corporate suite, but the market and profit impacts of reducing the number of smokers have triggered the beginnings of real change … My advice to students would be to take their personal instincts and to figure out not how to convince someone that they are right, but how to convince someone that it is in their economic interest to act in accord with those instincts.”

Way more verbose than “monetize” was an answer from Sweden, where sustainability consultant Alan AtKisson allowed himself the luxury of two words. “Business models,” he suggested. And “get out more” is our distillation of the advice from Imelda Dunlop, currently working on CSR issues in Dubai. “Living within different cultures is a great eye-opener — and the only way ultimately to build bridges, greater empathy, and mutual understanding,” she said. Running a few words longer was Andrew Fourie, CEO of the National Business Initiative in South Africa: “Decide who determines your values — your own soul or the needs of the corporation.”

From the Royal Tyrrell dinosaur museum in Alberta, Canada, Coro Strandberg — the former chair of VanCity Savings who’s served as a sustainability consultant for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics — reported that “Anything seems possible, and everything seems insignificant, when wandering through the museum with representatives of the older and the younger generations.” Her advice for anyone wanting to avoid joining the dinosaurs was “to get as well-rounded an education as possible. The way forward for survival of the human species will come through those working at the intersections of people, planet, and profit with cross-sectoral and cross-cultural experience, plus a skill set in finance and conflict resolution.”

Toshihiko Goto, co-chair of the Environmental Auditing Research Group, massaged the elitist side of undergraduate brains in his response from Japan. “I believe that graduates are the elite among humankind,” he explained. “To survive, elites have to act in a spirit of what the French called noblesse oblige.” Rather more spiritual was a response from India. “My advice would be do whatever your gut tells you to do, but remember that it is not how much money that you make that is important but how you made it,” said Shankar Venkateswaran, executive director of the American India Foundation-India. “And remember what Gandhiji once said: ‘Recall the face of the most helpless man you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.'”

Someone who is constantly asked for career advice by “very bright M.B.A.s” is professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann of the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. “My first advice is ‘Don’t listen to my advice.’ (There is a saying in Spanish: No me das consejos, ya se equivocarme solo — don’t give me advice, I know how to make mistakes by myself.) Having said that, I advise them that they should seek to make money (nothing wrong with that) and to enhance social welfare. Social entrepreneurship, i.e., a money-making activity that is geared to empowering the poor, that is what I strongly advise (following the first piece of advice).”

After Lehmann “educated” his colleague Ulrich Steger about “the deeper meaning of The Graduate,” Steger — whose background includes being a board director of Volkswagen and a state environment minister in Germany — was characteristically pragmatic. “Even if you are heavily interested in corporate sustainability,” he warned, “you need to have a professional ‘anchoring’ in one discipline, be it economics, engineering, or whatever, rather than going for fashionable courses suitable for the ‘general dilettante.’ And you have to gain management experience and reputation before being able to have an impact. The crucial success factor for such management jobs is not knowledge of [the] buzzwords of the day, but knowledge of the company and its people, the ability to negotiate, communicate widely, and be persistent and diplomatic at the same time — all things you scarcely touch on [in school].

And finally, “cultural creatives” guru Paul Ray had more advice you won’t learn in any classroom: “In process terms, the most important thing is to hold the tension between winning and being right: You’ve seen those guys in business and politics who exclusively hold on to ‘winning.’ They’re selling their souls, and they’re bad folks to be around, because they’ll sell yours too. And as they get older, they finally find it’s all empty and folly. You’ve also seen the true believers in various causes, who exclusively hold on to ‘being right’ … and you don’t want to be around them either. Again, as they get older, they finally find it’s all empty and folly. But when you hold that tension between winning and being right, you keep learning from your experience and from having to stay on top of things. What you don’t get is also critical: fat and sloppy, burned out, or murdered for your efforts. You have a chance of having gained some wisdom by the time you get older, and you don’t regret your life.”