The State of the Profession, 2013

One of the most common statements I’ve heard for years from people whose job within a company is to pursue a sustainability agenda is that “I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve worked myself out of a job.” If that were truly a goal then a career in sustainability -- a lifelong pursuit of the profession -- would be, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

I don’t want to be disingenuous here because I understand what those people are saying. They want to see sustainability embedded in everyone’s job. That’s an admirable goal but as a stated strategy it denies sustainability from being viewed as an easily recognized profession. It makes an aspirational profession more likely something to be featured in “Is This Anything?” on Late Night with David Letterman rather than an important career path.

Birth of a profession

We started to look at what it might mean to have a sustainability career in our 2013 State of the Profession report (download here). For the past few years, we mainly looked at compensation, staffing, budgets and the tasks these professionals undertake. This year we looked more at how they got there and where they’re going.

We asked survey respondents how many years they’ve worked on sustainability issues. As shown in Figure 1 below, 68 percent of vice presidents and 73 percent of directors have logged fewer than six years working on these issues within their present companies.

Figure 1: Number of years working on sustainability issues at your present company.

They couldn’t all have begun their careers in sustainability, so we were curious to find out what these professionals were doing before they got their sustainability jobs. We offered 17 distinct departments to choose from -- and still, 25 percent chose “Other.”

Twenty-one percent moved into sustainability from the EHS organization (or added sustainability to their environmental, health and safety responsibilities) and 10 percent noted that their first job was in sustainability. No other department recorded double-digit transfers — not marketing (8 percent), communications (6 percent), or facilities management (5 percent).

Is there a role model for sustainability executives?

Given that the job of leading sustainability is so new, we’ve engaged in a number of discussions to find out which corporate role can provide a model for the sustainability profession. What’s interesting is that many of the professions we take for granted today are also relatively new when it comes to management structures.

Chief Information Officers (CIOs) evolved as companies became more dependent on technology to both run their business and provide a competitive advantage. The job of the CIO emerged as companies employed greater numbers of programmers and systems analysts who needed to be managed by someone who understood how they worked and, perhaps more importantly, how to talk with them.

Next page: How supply chain leadership jobs are similar to sustainability jobs