How to get a career in sustainability: hard work, talent and perseverance

by Shannon Houde

You’ve seen the light. After a decade as an accountant or sales manager or marketing executive, you decide a career in corporate sustainability is the thing for you. And why not? The power of business can potentially help to resolve some of the most taxing social and environmental issues of the day. Being part of that promises plenty of exciting development and brain-twisting challenges along the way; not to mention the quiet satisfaction that derives from doing a job that is worth doing.

But it’s time to meet reality. Demand for sustainability jobs is enormous and openings are few and far between. Formal sustainability roles, even in the world’s largest corporations, often fail to reach double figures. Nor is the timing great. Sustainability in general has suffered a “setback” with the global recession of recent years, says Paul Gosling, managing director for the UK and Europe at specialist recruiter Allen & York.

Not put off? That’s good. Because if you’re to make a career for yourself in sustainability, then learning to persevere will prove essential. “It’s a tough job, with plenty of knocks and scrapes on the journey,” warns Mike Barry, director of Plan A at Marks and Spencer.


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Many of the other qualities on Barry’s interview watch-list are generic for good managers everywhere: good people skills, the ability to drive change and strong networking skills. Others are what you might expect for someone looking to break into the field: an understanding of sustainability and personal integrity (ie being “true to their values and lead by example”) are both musts. All are easy enough to identify, but tough to embody.

Andy Cartland, founder of sustainability recruitment company Acre, puts particular emphasis on two further characteristics in the list. The first is innovation: the ability to unpack complex problems, dissect them into their constituent parts and come up with genuinely novel solutions is critical, he insists. “Companies would be far more willing to hire sustainability professionals if they think they’re getting an innovator who can genuinely help them do business in better ways that haven’t been thought of before.”

The second quality on Cartland’s list is a sound knowledge of business. People who want to save the world but can’t understand a corporate balance sheet won’t cut it, he says. Business folk in mainstream functions are inherently suspicious of the soft world of sustainability. To make inroads, you need to be able to speak their language and understand their priorities. “It’s all about how they integrate sustainability with the commercial success of the business,” he notes, in reference to typical job specifications nowadays.

The balance between technical knowledge and business experience is a tricky one to strike. Numerous universities and business schools now offer sustainability-related MBAs or MScs. Approaching the job market with a technical qualification won’t do you any disfavours, says Gosling. Knowing your GRI-G4 from your ISO 26000 will give future employers a level of confidence. But having an accreditation after your name isn’t “vital”, in his opinion. More important is to be on top of the relevant facts and up to speed on the latest developments.

For Shannon Houde, a sustainability careers adviser with UK-based Walk of Life Consulting, the question of professional training needs to be weighed against the costs in terms of time and money. An additional qualification may of course just be the missing piece between you and your dream job, especially if the post is highly technical. Yet she generally advises caution. If nothing else, it’s not a sector that favours those out of work or on career breaks.

“You have to map the gap between what it is you can currently offer, the roles that you think you’re going to target and the interim steps to get you there,” she says. “It’s not just a case of jumping into a masters programme and hoping that that somehow waves this career wand at the end.”

A key interim step, she argues, is to gain experience in your current role. Joining the company’s volunteering scheme or championing a green initiative in the office all help you earn your sustainability spurs and prove your interest in the subject. Networking internally to identify others that share your passion can also open opportunities for initial exposure to the subject and for some project experience on your CV.

Indeed, Houde’s first piece of advice is not to enter the external job market at all. Far better to try to carve out a sustainability job where you currently are, she advises. You already have the contacts. You know the sector. All it takes is to make the business case for why such a role is needed and to convince the boss why you’re best placed to fill it. Naturally, you’ll then need the gumption to “ride out the highs and lows” that will inevitably follow.

“What I advise my clients is, create your own job,” says Houde. “Find a way to leverage your sector knowledge and the knowledge you have of the business you are working in to create your own sustainability role.”

Try as you might, however, this approach may ultimately prove impossible. In which case, you’ll need to jump ship. But before you leap, make sure you’ve got a clear idea of where you want to land: what sector, what role, what pay grade. That means definitely not applying for every job going. Likewise, it means targeting jobs at your level of experience, not taking salary cuts just to get your foot in the door.

“If you’re open to anything, that’s a big red flag… it’s very painful for people because they say: ‘Oh, I don’t want to limit myself,’ but it backfires when you go out and do a job search,” says Houde.

Given the competition out there, you can rightly celebrate if you succeed in making the leap into corporate sustainability and landing your perfect job. But don’t linger too long. It’s a fast-paced sector, Gosling notes. “Opinion, science and legislation are constantly moving and changing.” You need to be ready to future-proof your company one minute and negotiate with an activist group the next; jump from an investor relations call to a supply chain policy meeting.

If that sounds all too much, then best stay put. A job in sustainability isn’t for everyone. Only the best and the brightest – and the most bloody-minded – need apply.

This article was originally published by The Guardian.


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