9 skills for success in corporate sustainability leadership

The following is adapted from the book Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations, by Timothy J. Mohin, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

While numerous graduate programs are popping up that offer training in sustainable business and corporate responsibility, very few people in the corporate responsibility (CR) field have these degrees. Most people working in CR positions have education and experience in some other area and have followed their passion to get to one of these jobs. After talking to several of my colleagues and thinking through my own experiences, I identified nine core skills that are important elements to success in corporate responsibility:

1. Be flexible like Gumby and curious like George

Working in CR is a lifelong learning experience that rewards the flexible and curious. Corporate responsibility touches just about every issue within the company. On a single day, you may have to field questions on your company’s human rights policy, the independence of the directors on your board, your water conservation measures, and the diversity of your workforce.

The breadth of this role can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part is being asked to represent areas you know very little about. The exhilarating aspect is learning about all of these areas. People who are naturally curious, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and are eager to take on new tasks tend to thrive in corporate responsibility roles. While you may have to spend significant time operating outside of your “comfort zone,” the upside is learning about other functions within the company and building relationships with managers across the enterprise.

If being curious does not come naturally, practice by seeking out colleagues from other organizations that have a stake in your CR program. Set up one-on-one meetings to understand their scope of responsibilities, their views about your company’s CR programs, and any areas of mutual interest.

2. Hold on to your core competency while learning new skills

Just about everyone in corporate responsibility started their careers in another field. Whether you come from a marketing background or environmental science, corporate responsibility is a big tent and there is always a way to apply your skills. The key to success is to walk the line between contributing knowledge from your core competencies, and being pigeonholed into a narrow role defined by these competencies.

Look for ways to leverage your existing skills to help the organization while simultaneously taking on other responsibilities that demand skill development. My view is that people with a technical background can learn some of the “softer” skills (e.g., communications and influencing) needed for success in CR more easily than non-technical people can come up to speed on the intricacies of fields such as environmental engineering. The flip side is that many of the people who gravitate toward technical fields may be less comfortable with the ambiguity in a CR role, and fewer of them may possess the communication and influencing skills needed for success in this profession.

While mastering new skills and behaviors in the workplace can be incredibly difficult, it can be accomplished with the appropriate time and attention. You have to be willing to take risks by working in new areas and be willing to feel vulnerable, or even fail. The keys are to have the desire to learn and grow, the humility to be less informed than others, and above all the passion for your cause.

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