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Guest blog – Katie Kross: How to find an impact career track that fits you

by Shannon Houde

One of the things that makes the sustainability job search challenging is the diversity of options. There are lots of ways to use your career to have a positive impact on the world – whether that translates into reducing the carbon footprint of a large multinational, or convincing more consumers to buy a fair-trade product.

In my role as an educator at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, I’ve counseled students on hundreds of sustainability and social impact career paths – paths as diverse as the students themselves. One of the most critical steps in the job search process is deciding on what type of function and role you’re focused.

Do I want to make a big company green, or a green company big?

Consider the options presented in the matrix below. (Note that my orientation is on business careers, but you could easily map this out for other disciplines like engineering or law.)

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First, consider what type of organization you want to be working for. Do you want to be working at a traditional business employer (for instance, a large multinational corporation, investment bank, or management consulting firm)? Or do you want to be working at a sustainability-oriented organization, where an environmental or social focus is central to the organization’s core mission, product, or service? These might include, for example, mission-driven companies, cleantech, sustainability consulting firms, and nonprofit organizations.

Next, consider what kind of role you want to hold. Are you seeking a traditional job title? In business, that might mean, for instance, financial analyst, brand manager, or supply chain manager. Or are you seeking a sustainability-oriented job that involves managing social/environmental issues as a primary part of your daily function — for instance, as a CSR manager or sustainability director?

Where you focus your job search depends on which of these quadrants appeals to you most.

Traditional role, traditional company – If you have a business mindset and want to affect large-scale change, working in a traditional business role might be for you. Sometimes the most effective way to integrate sustainability into operational decisions is in a front-line role such as product manager or procurement manager. Traditional business roles also afford you a chance to learn the company’s core business. Some professionals have taken this approach and eventually moved into the company’s sustainability department; others have spent time in a traditional role, building their skill set, before moving to a sustainability organization later in their career.

Sustainability role, traditional company – Some of the most sought-after jobs are sustainability or CSR roles at big corporations and brand-name companies. Corporate sustainability departments are small, and competition for these positions is fierce. In practice, these positions sometimes require a great deal of “swimming upstream” in trying to change a company. Sustainability managers must often act as change agents, educating internal and external stakeholders and trying to push new initiatives through – but these can be very rewarding roles when change happens.

Traditional role, sustainability-oriented organization – If you are open to applying traditional business skills in a mission-driven setting, there are a lot of jobs out there. Mission-driven companies (including B corporations), cleantech firms, social impact or environmental conservation nonprofits might all be options. If you join an organization in this category, you will probably be surrounded by individuals and an organizational culture that supports your passion for the cause. That can be inherently rewarding. On the other hand, you may not have the same kinds of resources and reach as at a large corporation.

Sustainability role, sustainability-oriented organization – Jobs in this category are typically niche, specialized positions. Many small firms don’t have the resources for a full-time sustainability director, so the options here often depend on the particular needs of an industry. If you know which industry you are interested in, research the industry and talk to professionals to get a better sense for where sustainability roles fit in.

Follow your passion

There is no “right” or “wrong” quadrant here. When it comes to choosing your focus, every individual is different. What are you passionate about? What skills do you enjoy using on a day-to-day basis? How important is it that you are among colleagues who “get it”? Do you see yourself working at a multinational company, helping to change the organization from within? Or, do you prefer a more entrepreneurial environment?

Identifying which quadrant of this matrix you want to focus your search on is a great first step to mapping out your job search strategy.

Katie Kross is Managing Director of the EDGE Center at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability, newly released in 2nd edition.

Photo by Greg Knapp, via Flickr/ CC BY, cropped from original

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