How to hack it as a corporate treehugger

CSR job seekers and professionals, look no further than Tim Mohin’s “Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations.” This book, informed by years of on-the-job experience, is today’s most practical guide for anyone looking to prepare for or thrive in a corporate social responsibility role.

Unlike the sea of literature flooding the market with advice on how to get a job in CSR, Mohin’s outlook sets itself apart because he is not speaking in abstract academic theories, but from real life CSR experience. Before his current role as director of corporate responsibility at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Mohin held executive CSR positions at Intel and Apple, and worked as a sustainability consultant for several Fortune 500 companies.  

In his book, Mohin asserts that CSR is a real job and the numbers and titles are growing each year as more companies recognize the need for these roles. It is designed to be a practitioner’s field guide for these jobs and a reference that can be used whether you are just starting in CSR or working on continuous improvements of your CSR programs.

The newness and variety of roles within the CSR field means that people coming from other sectors or expertise still can find a place in CSR. But along with forging new territory comes the need for determination and resiliency. “While rewarding on many levels, the job of a corporate treehugger can be frustrating, because you will always be something of a ‘stranger in a strange land’ – meaning that many of your colleagues will not understand what you do or how your work adds value to the company,” Mohin writes.

So make sure you have your elevator pitch down pat and understand that you will need to constantly work to prove you and your CSR team’s worth.

Stepping up the CSR plate

If you're serious about a career in CSR, first you must determine what type of role you're looking for, whether it's technical (supplier responsibility, tactical operations), less technical (communications, marketing) or managerial (chief sustainability officer, CSR director).

Then take a hard look at the kind of company you want to work for: one that has just caught onto the significance of CSR and is working on integrating it into business practices (what Mohin calls a “2x4” company that’s been “whacked” and now sees the value of CSR) or one where CSR has been incorporated into the very ethos of the company from day one (or what he calls an “epiphany” company). Mohin says many more companies in the “2x4” category have less-mature programs and will have jobs that tend to be “more entrepreneurial but also more ambiguous and chaotic,” requiring someone who is more self-directed.

As for interviews, he advises candidates to voice their passion for CSR and to prove it with volunteering or a CSR-related internship. If you don’t have experience directly related to CSR, explain in your cover letter and resume how the experience you do have can translate to the CSR role you are applying for.

How to make the cut

Mohin dives deeper into each of these rules of the trade for how to succeed in the CSR profession:

• Understand the business: Get a grasp of how your CSR program brings value to the company’s overall value proposition, because at the end of the day, businesses are not charities.

• Don’t get too far in front of the cavalry: Know where your CSR program lies in the company’s hierarchy, and make sure to get buy-in from the necessary stakeholders and go through the company’s decision-making processes.

• All ideas are good ideas until you have to pay for them: Choose wisely what CSR initiatives you’ll invest the company’s time, talent and money in. Know how to distinguish a good idea from one that will bring the maximum benefit to your program.

• Don’t take yourself too seriously: Make sure to check your ego at the door and keep your priority on the value your CSR programs will offer the company overall and not just on how well you or your team is performing.

• Words matter: Understand that communicating CSR issues can be sensitive and complicated, especially considering they must be communicated to such a wide audience of stakeholders. Invest in improving your communication skills.

• Results matter more: While attending some CSR events and conferences is important, Tim recommends always asking yourself, “How is this activity helping to make things better?” Spend more time achieving than talking about your goals.

• Culture eats strategy for breakfast: Having a good understanding of your company’s unique corporate culture will help you determine the tone and context within which your CSR program is most likely to succeed.

The imposter syndrome: Stand behind your CSR skills even when you feel a little different from your colleagues. While a CSR career requires trailblazing on new issues, you typically will be more knowledgeable than most on the subject.

• Lead from where you stand: If you are in a CSR position that has limited decision-making power, he writes, “never let your position supersede your passion or overshadow your abilities.” You can always make suggestions, no matter what position you are in.

Chalkboard image by Matthew Jacques via Shutterstock