The BSR Conference 2011, taking place in San Francisco on November 1 through 4, will showcase ideas, trends, and tools in sustainable business related to the theme of “Redefining Leadership.” Here, we talk with BSR Vice President Kara Hurst about the highlights this year, what “Redefining Leadership” means to her, and the questions she has for plenary speaker Al Gore.

What are some highlights of the Conference this year?

What’s exciting about our Conference every year is that we bring together a diverse set of people who are focused on the sustainability agenda. This year, with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Strauss Group Chairperson Ofra Strauss, and Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito all confirmed to date, we have a chance to engage in a conversation right from the beginning about sustainability leadership.

The theme for this year’s Conference, “Redefining Leadership,” is the same as the theme of the BSR Report 2010. What about this idea resonates with you?

To me, the theme is about changing the conversation and continuing to push on sustainability issues. CSR leadership is leadership redefined. Changing how companies operate and interact requires mavericks within business functions to lead; and even if it’s not in your job title, you have to lead through influence, persuasion, and by educating others.

When I hear [BSR President and CEO] Aron Cramer talk about what’s behind the theme, and the four dimensions of leadership—setting ambitious targets, learning from the margins, investing in infrastructure of all kinds, and sailing fearlessly toward the future—the last point resonates with me most. It means you’re thinking about the future, not just focused on short-termism but taking a longer viewpoint. This also requires a leap of faith and a willingness to lead, even when there are unknowns—and there are plenty of uncertainties. We don’t always know the 100 steps it will take to get somewhere. That’s the leadership part—stepping out in front and at times saying, “I don’t know. Let’s take it one step at a time. We may not know how, but we’re going to do this anyway and learn as we go.”

People who work in CSR get that. They’re holistic thinkers, systems thinkers. These are the people who can actually move us ahead. Companies that lead get that, too.

Our Conference is a place to encourage people to practice this kind of leadership, and I hope that we will learn from the people who didn’t quite get it right and are brave enough to share why.

Late last year, you wrote a blog on the “Top CSR Events of 2010” that pointed out the links between world events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and WikiLeaks and sustainability issues such as energy security and transparency. Will you continue this discussion at the Conference?

While we don’t have all of the agenda finalized for this year, at the Conference, we always discuss how significant global events—such as the financial crisis and innovations like Twitter that have changed the way we communicate—have caused us to think differently about the business that we’re in.  Many  of these things highlight issues related to sustainability and make us look at our own practices with a much broader perspective. And that applies to companies, too.

I was talking with someone about this recently, and she described sustainability as “thinking globally and acting locally.” But, of course, it’s really about acting globally as well. In the business environment, companies have the chance to influence not only their employees and customers but to engage with a much broader set of stakeholders.

The opening plenary speaker this year is former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, whose Generation Investment Management firm is dedicated to the idea that “sustainability factors—economic, environmental, social, and governance criteria—will drive a company's returns over the long term.” What are you hoping to hear from him at the BSR Conference?

As someone who has been a political leader, the leading advocate for addressing climate change, and is now an investor focused on sustainability in the private sector, Al Gore has a very compelling story. He’s led a conversation on sustainability with big-picture ideas, and he also has very concrete steps about what individuals can do to mitigate climate change.

Given that the majority of Conference attendees are from businesses, we’d love to hear more about the role business has to play in creating change—from both an advocacy and regulatory perspective—and about business’ role creating solutions through products and services.

I know it will also be interesting for our audience to hear more about why he chose to pursue responsible investing as part of Generation Investment Management. In his position, he could have done anything, so the choice to create a firm devoted to longer-term, sustainability-focused investing is interesting.

For those who might be new to the BSR Conference—or new to CSR—what’s your advice on how they can get the most out of the event?

First, remember that the networking time spent between sessions in the hallways can sometimes be as engaging as the sessions. As much as our Conference is about the newest sustainability content and learning, it’s also about the connections and the relationships that are developed, which is usually what people who are new to the field are lacking. And there’s great value in finding like-minded people.

The other thing I want to emphasize is that the BSR Conference is a place where you come to recharge. It can be tough, at times, to be in this field, and our Conference is energizing and inspiring. You may hear an idea you haven’t heard before, or hear from someone unexpected. Last year, in addition to experts on sustainability, we had speakers ranging from the creator of a comic book to the founder of the National Institute for Play.

We create this kind of agenda intentionally. If you’re new, come prepared with an open mind. Come prepared to speak your mind. This is a forum, where you don’t just show up, you speak up. You participate, and we all get a lot out of your participation, even if you’re new.

Learn more or register now at www.bsr.org/conference.