Ten years ago, there were few dedicated jobs with ‘sustainability’ in the title. Professionals who were passionate about this management issue often found themselves creating their own job descriptions. They paved the way for new career paths of sustainability practitioners with new insights about where and how sustainability fits into a corporate organisation and what makes a sustainability executive successful in the role.
We wondered: what skills does today’s sustainability manager require? To get the answers, we spent some time this summer conducting interviews directly with hiring managers. We had in-depth discussions with 10 companies, ranging from environmental conservation organisations and boutique sustainability consultancies to large sustainability departments at Fortune 50 companies.
Here are five attributes that stood out.
1. A diverse background. Employers often like to see a clear corporate-ladder progression on a candidate’s resume. We were surprised to hear some sustainability employers say they look for the opposite. “One of the markers of a strategic sustainability thinker I look for is a diverse background across sectors, industries, companies, functions or projects,” said Kirk Myers, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at REI. “It doesn’t have to be a formal job and can be filled out by class projects, or particularly internships, but that portfolio of experience is important.
2. Specialisation. Even as breadth of experience is valued, so too is depth in a particular area of sustainability. As larger companies have begun to grow their sustainability departments from a staff of one to several, there are increasingly specialised and specialised roles available. Valeria Orozco, Manager of Sustainability Services at Accenture told us: “As sustainability matures, people are looking for experts and you want to be known as that person that can do lifecycle analysis or Scope 3 [greenhouse gas reporting] or whatever that might be. Because when a request for proposals drops, if we know you’re the expert we’re going to bring you in.”
3. Ability to envision solutions. Sustainable solutions often require fundamentally new ways of thinking about existing systems and processes. Truly great sustainability leaders come at challenges thinking about a problem from square one: what is the need I am trying to address? Can it be addressed as an innovation rather than a trade-off? Many of our respondents cited systems thinking and design thinking as critical skills for sustainability experts and said they value formal training or coursework in these disciplines. Amidst a rapidly changing world, sustainability executives must be able to envision business solutions in radically new ways.
4. Ability to lead change. Sustainability hirers also frequently mention the need for “change agents.” Changing a company’s business practices requires persistence, ingenuity and salesmanship. “A successful corporate sustainability professional needs to be comfortable in situations where he or she is not the most popular person in the room,” said Lisa Shpritz, SVP, Environmental Operations Executive at Bank of America. Sustainability practitioners tell us that the ability to influence – even where they don’t have direct authority – is crucial to their job. Systemic change often becomes a multi-stakeholder engagement, requiring collaboration with supply chain partners, NGOs, government, academia and sometimes even competitors.
5. Business acumen. “The ability to understand business models – not just reputational and bottom line efficiency benefits, but also how companies make money from sustainable products and services – that’s really a big difference and a lot of people we see don’t have that,” says Truman Semans, Principal at the consultancy GreenOrder. No matter how passionate they are about environmental issues, a manager going into a sustainability role must have a deep understanding of the company, its competitive context, and its business processes. Want to “sell” sustainability to your stakeholders? Be sure you can sell it in business terms.
As organisations move up the sustainability maturity curve, their issues become increasingly complex. In many firms, the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability solutions has already been captured. The issues that companies are wrestling with now require creative solutions and dramatically different ways of thinking about business. Whether the issue is on the organisation level, supply chain level, industry level, or global level, businesses are now looking for sustainability approaches that provide opportunities for top-line growth, not just operational cost savings.
In such a complex landscape, there’ll be growing demand for creative problem-solvers. That means continued opportunities for well-rounded MBAs with a passion for sustainability, a business-savvy view of the long term and the will to lead change.
Katie Kross is Managing Director of the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Profession and Purpose, the second edition of which will be released next year. Written with MBA students in mind, Profession and Purpose “can help you better understand the landscape of sustainability-related career options, focus your search on specific paths, find the best resources and fine-tune your sustainability job search strategy.”