One of the trends I’ve noticed over the past several years is that a growing number of my friends and peers have adopted lifestyles that put a large emphasis on protecting the environment. I know a handful of people who have also changed jobs or industries to better align their careers with those values.
As Earth Day (April 22) approaches, I thought it would be a good idea to explore how you can make such a career move. The odds are that it may play a role in your career decisions. More than 1,500 of you responded to a poll I ran on LinkedIn, with 61% of you saying sustainability matters a lot to you in your work. Another 27% said it matters some.
I reached out to Shannon Houde, who is the founder of Walk of Life Coaching. She’s also the author of Good Work: How to Build a Career that Makes a Difference in the World.
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Houde offered some great advice during our chat for people looking to make a change in their careers. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What should people think about when they think of sustainability?
Shannon: ‘Sustainability’ has taken its own shape over the last decade. Every organization talks about it a little bit differently with varied semantics from Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) to corporate responsibility (CSR) to social impact to circularity. So, it’s challenging to have one universal definition. The word sustainability to me means being intentional and transparent about your impacts on the environment and community. It is about making a profit while mitigating risks to others. It is about shaping organizations to be able to exist in the future, 20 years out.
If you’re a job seeker or a career changer or looking to make a difference, there are so many areas you could niche into — get specific about the issues you care most about. It could be about waste. It could be water. It could be sustainable agriculture. It could be the labor rights of factory workers in Asia. It could be any issue you’re looking at now that’s about making positive change. What I usually say is, define it for yourself. What do you think a sustainable world needs to look like and where can you personally make a difference? You could be composting and recycling at home. You could stop using plastic bags. You can do some of these little things that are becoming more mainstream in terms of behavior change.
But you can also go further. Could you volunteer somewhere? Could you do some pro bono work for an organization that might not be able to afford help? Could you write articles and educate people? There are lots of ways to get involved that don’t necessarily mean you have to have a job with the title sustainability in it. It’s really about personal responsibility towards our planet and our communities. Then that personal responsibility goes into team and organization and government and it gets bigger and bigger in terms of your collective impact. But we as individuals have such an opportunity to make small changes to our own behaviors that are going to add up.
Q: What about people who want to make a career change into something that makes a difference?
Shannon: I usually say you’ve got kind of two ways to think about making a career shift. Let’s use an accounting career in the food sector as an example. If you are wanting to make a career change into impact, firstly you could change the context and keep the role the same — continue serving the role of an accountant but working within a mission-driven B Corp or sustainably driven social enterprise that’s going to have the mission and values alignment with you. But, you’re serving in the same role or function that you’ve been doing in the past. That’s the easiest transition because you’re going to be marketable with the skills and the role staying the same, you are just changing the context in which you work to be impact or purpose-focused.
The second option is if you just want to be done with the role of accountant and do more of an impact-focused role but stay in the same food sector or industry you have been in, then you could say, ‘Well, what are the skills that I was really great at, that I loved doing? What are the tasks that I did well as an accountant that I could translate to a new role because they would still be valuable?’ For instance, it could be data analysis and reporting. It could be cross-functional collaboration and communication. It could be project and team management. These are core skills for any impact role, especially for sustainability reporting roles. So, if you don’t want to apply them as an accountant anymore, but they’re relevant for your new target role, then leverage and promote those skills. Make them transferrable and relevant for your new audience. Then highlight how well you know the food sector and industry — how you know their stakeholders, their competitors, their risks, their supply chain. You are combining your transferrable accounting skills with your deep sector knowledge and this personal brand story will be more competitive. Don’t forget to also sprinkle in your sustainability issue knowledge and experience that you may have gained through volunteering or education.
Q: How do you find a company or organization that aligns with your values?
Shannon: One of my first steps is identifying those values. When I identify values with the candidate or a job seeker, I always say, ‘what are the five things that the company needs to give you to make sure you’re aligned.’ What are the values that are so core to who you are, in the context of work, that if that company doesn’t share those values, you’re not going to be happy there. Some examples could be “collaborative team, quality work, intellectual challenge, global view, respect for others, resilient leadership, risk tolerance, stretch targets, change & variety, walk the talk…”
Then do the due diligence on the organization to test if those values are going to align — for the organization, senior leadership and the department you’re going to be in and the boss you’re going to be working with. You’ve got to actually do that values test across all those. The easiest way to test a company’s values is by reading their social responsibility report, but beware as that this report can often be skewed as the pretty window dressing and not necessarily the reality on the inside of the organization.
So, I have an additional tip which is to call people who used to work for the organization — not current employees. They’re going to tell you the truth of what it feels like to work there every day. Current employees oftentimes don’t want to talk to job seekers, or they’re not really going to tell you the whole truth about their company brand that they’re working for now.
Most importantly, this whole space of impact, purpose and culture, sustainability…it’s a top-down issue. I always say really deep dive and look at the senior leadership and what are they really doing? How bought in are they? Because if they’re not promoting the values from an authentic center, it’s likely that the sustainability report could have been just window dressing. Looking to senior leadership is where you can really see if the company is “walking the talk” of their values.
Q: Is the job search process different for people who want to follow this path?
Shannon: I don’t think there is such a thing as a traditional job search anymore. Sixty percent of roles are never even posted externally. So you find those through what we call the “hidden jobs market.” This means you need to be constantly keeping your networks alive, keeping conversations going, and staying on top of the trends of what is happening in the areas that you want to be working in. It’s crucial to be networking daily – what I call “making new friends.”
Once you know what the sustainability issue is that you want to focus on (see question 1 above) and make a difference in, you can start to get more focused on the tools and the resources that are out there to help you find those roles. LinkedIn is my number one tool for researching the market. That’s where I send everybody first. Do your research on who the players are in that space. Pick 10 companies that you want to target and 10 people “you want to be when you grow up” using your sustainability keywords as a search function to narrow it down – impact investing, human rights, sustainable sourcing, etc. Then you can look at who those people are following on LinkedIn. What groups are they a part of? Where are they speaking? What are the issues they’re talking about? You can start to almost reverse engineer who you want to be through learning about the key players. LinkedIn gives you access to so much juicy content about your target market.
Q: Is there anything else people should know about exploring this space?
Shannon: I’ve now mentored and coached more than 1,000 career changers within the impact space for over a decade. I know for a fact that making a career change is possible. But the job seeker has to have a sense of resilience and a sense of self-worth in the process because it is a long process (my course helps break it down into 14 steps). It requires creativity. It requires some discomfort with reaching out to new people. It requires being able to face a bit of rejection. It requires unpacking and discovering and understanding a market that’s evolving so quickly that it’s not a straight-line career path. But it is possible. Believe in yourself and the impact you can have.
What values are important to you in an employer? Join the conversation.
This article was originally published by Andrew Seaman in the LinkedIn Get Hired Newsletter and the original article can be viewed here.