Guest blogger John Elkington offers insight on the future of the CR jobs market

by Shannon Houde

We’re delighted to be joined today by author and sustainability thought leader John Elkington who’ll be guest blogging his advice on talent and jobs in the growing sustainability and corporate responsibility markets.

His recent book, The Zeronauts, highlights many personal stories about the sustainability agenda’s focus on behaviour change and engaging staff to be empowered. In brief, this agenda is all about its people.

Thank you, John, for being our guest blogger and giving your insights on how we can ensure we have the “right” roles and the “right” people in them to push this agenda forward.


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1. How can corporates better design roles, structures and competency frameworks to attract top talent for strategic sustainability?

That’s a tough question to answer, since we are at a point where ‘Change-as-Usual’ strategies are not fit for purpose, and there is a growing sense that we need transformative, systemic change. That’s why we’re focusing on what we call Breakthrough Capitalism. That said, the key thing is to have a clearly articulated vision, as Paul Polman of Unilever or Jochen Zeitz of PUMA do. As long as there are clear, stretch targets and the company is well organised, the rest should follow – as long as related performance aspects are built into the relevant scorecards and incentive schemes. Having a powerful internal champion is generally the key, whether or not that person is identified as a Chief Sustainability Officer.

2. How should organisations be aligning professional development goals with sustainability objectives?

There is a growing number of excellent courses on offer at business schools and universities, but equally companies like Accenture have developed internal development programmes like Accenture Development Partners to expose volunteering staff to different aspects of the real world, working closely with NGOs and social entrepreneurs trying to drive change. At Volans, we work with companies like Allianz and HP to bring social entrepreneurs into the business – and key executives out into the social enterprises, as a means of developing both sides of the equation.

3. How can University Masters programmes focused on this area best prepare students to be ready for the “real world” jobs market of sustainability, rather than just learning the theory behind sustainability?

I am surprised to find myself a visiting professor at Cranfield, Imperial College and UCL, and often lecture at other universities and business schools. Progress in the area of education has been extraordinary in recent years. My key recommendations? Expose students to people whose day-to-day work is in the business of sustainability, such as Chief Sustainability Officers or other (currently more central) senior roles. And bring in some of the extraordinary innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors and policy-makers who are pursuing zero or 100% targets, people we describe as Zeronauts.

4. We are seeing hiring trends that many organisations are filling sustainability roles from within, especially senior ones. What are your thoughts on hiring from within and “learning” sustainability vs. coming in from the outside of an organisation with proven sustainability experience?

Every so often, as with IBM and Lou Gerstner, it makes sense to go outside, but companies like P&G have long succeeded by recruiting from within. Senior people with wide sustainability-related experience remain a rarity in most companies, however.

5. What is your advice for the many candidates in the market trying to break in to sustainability roles? What specifically should they do to “break in” and gain experience?

Don’t obsess with sustainability labels or roles. Find other entry points and work out how to use them to leverage the appropriate forms of change from within. You are often more credible if you come at this from an internal function rather than from one that is still seen as somewhat intrusive.

6. What would you consider the top 3 skills that anyone in the diverse niches of sustainability would need, no matter what their technical focus is?

The abilities to think and connect on a wider level; to be ambitious enough to set higher, more ambitious goals than might seem reasonable; and to invest in the longer term, in every respect. Such people display – and develop – what we call their Future Quotient.

John is a writer, thought-leader and business strategist, a serial entrepreneur and, at heart, an environmentalist. He is Executive Chairman of Volans and co-founder of the think tank SustainAbility..


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