8 Sustainability Skills for Jobseekers from Mike Barry – M&S Plan A

by Shannon Houde

One of the most distinctive traits of great leadership is the desire to empower the leaders of the future.

At a recent Net Impact sustainability careers event in London, I was thrilled to host a panel with one of the most inspirational sustainability leaders in the business: Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business at Marks and Spencer PLC, who played a central role in setting up M&S’s game-changing agenda, Plan A.

In his speech, Mike walked the walk by setting out his own hiring agenda and outlining the key eight skills he looks for in a prospective sustainability professional’s CV.


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As he put it on the night, “We need people to lead us from an unsustainable model to something completely different for the future, and I want you to be part of that”.

So if you’re a jobseeker looking to break into the industry or a professional wondering how the best in the business affect change, listen up!

1 – People skills

“This is the number one skill. You’ve got to be able to get alongside people who are under tremendous pressure in a very difficult working environment and say, ‘we’ve gotta change, guys’. Negotiation, influence, the ability to put an arm around somebody’s shoulder and say ‘Come on a journey with me’ – these things are critical.”

2 – Ability to lead change

“Sustainability is ambiguous and it’s uncertain. What is it? Where are we going with it? What does government want from us? Are consumers up for it? You’ve got to be able to turn these grey areas into a clear and compelling message about why we need to change: to spell out how we’re going to do it, where we’re going with it, and why that’ll be a better place.”

3 – Personal integrity

“Many people will frown the moment I walk into a room, but none of them will doubt my integrity. I believe in what I stand for. You need that too.”

4 – Business knowledge

“Get to know the business. Learn how it does its marketing, how it runs IT systems, how it buys, sells, builds up margin. Then come and see me for a job in sustainability to try to change it all. Before you can do that, you have to know the business side of things.”

5 – Build partnerships

“The ability to connect is so powerful. The future of a truly sustainable business model is a series of overlapping alliances – some with NGOs, civil society, governments, competitors, and peers – to the extent that a business will literally be managed with a series of integrated partnerships that create genuine mutual value. This is enormously important.”

6 – An innovative mind

“Sustainability leaders need to be able to take an unsustainable business model and create a series of overlapping 5-year programmes that will take it to a sustainable future in a manageable way so that a business can continue selling products and gradually shift to where it needs to go.”

7 – Sustainability itself

“I look for translators of science, not science experts. Your job is to translate the outside world into something meaningful for Marks and Spencer PLC. That broad vision is more important to me than specific expertise.”

8 – Courage

“If you believe that you can change an organisation, you will get through the bad days. It’s tough. Sometimes, it’s like pushing water up a hill. But stick with it and keep driving, keep the passion and you’ll get there. It takes courage.”

This week, I’m heading to Maryland, USA for another Net Impact sustainability event, so if you want more career advice from the cream of the sustainability world, bookmark, add or follow me through the social media links above.


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