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Two Steps Forward

'30 Under 30' and next-gen thinking

Nurturing and empowering the next generation of sustainability professionals is part of everyone's job.

30 Under 30 collage

GreenBiz collage

Let’s begin the week with an injection of inspiration and hope. But also a nudge, or maybe a shove.

Today, we introduce the 2021 cohort of the "GreenBiz 30 Under 30," two-and-a-half dozen extraordinary women and men in sustainability worth watching. It’s a moment when we get to turn away from the often mind-numbing drumbeat of news about the world and its many problems and look instead at some rising talent who will help us find our way through them.

The Class of 2021, our sixth annual — 18 women and 12 men from 12 nations — represents the best of what most of us aspire to be: committed; creative; collaborative; courageous. I encourage you to peruse each of their brief stories and follow or connect with them on social media. (High praise to the GreenBiz editorial team, particularly to Elsa Wenzel, who edited this project, for the unenviable task of choosing from among the hundreds of awesome candidates, then capturing their essence in under 250 words.)

Since our first cohort in 2016, the annual "30 Under 30" selection process has become both easier and harder. Easier because so many more inspired and inspiring young people are choosing sustainability as their professional path, each bringing their unique talents, insights and life experiences. Which also makes it harder, winnowing the candidates to just 30 individuals.

But all of this is just a start.

Our responsibility as sustainability professionals — each of us, you and I included — doesn’t end with publishing and celebrating this annual list. These 30 individuals deserve support and encouragement, benefitting from our successes, missteps, historical perspective and institutional knowledge. Without that, they will no doubt find their way, as most of us have, but they will lose precious time at a moment when time may be our greatest limited resource.

To simply do my thing, however rewarding and fulfilling, and not encourage and empower others still finding their way feels like a dereliction of duty.

Many of you represent the pioneers in sustainable business, literally inventing the profession that others are just entering, and you have a lot to offer, probably more than you realize. A lot to learn, too, as I expect you’ll glean plenty of insights and inspiration from engaging with these young leaders. Whatever they may lack in life and professional experience, they more than make up for with an appetite for learning, a lust for impact and a facility with the tools and resources that have become the birthright of today’s digital natives.

Of course, all of that also goes for the thousands of other "under 30s" who didn’t happen to make our list. No doubt, some worthy souls within your organization, community or professional network could benefit from your tutelage.

Guide on the side

Beyond that is a bigger challenge: Knowing when and how to make room for the next generation to flourish. I’m not talking about early retirement, job-sharing or anything of the sort. I’m talking about empowering young professionals to step into leadership roles, perhaps faster than you did, perhaps faster than you may deem appropriate.

Easy to say, hard to do. Giving up or sharing one’s turf after all the years (or decades) it took to get there doesn’t come naturally for most people, especially for those of us who are passionate about what we do and still have plenty of energy to keep doing it. And it’s not necessarily about "giving up" anything. It’s about creating a space for others, then doing whatever you can to help them succeed. Along the way, you will, too.

I have some experience with this. At age 69 and after more than three decades in the field of sustainable business and clean technology, I have no plans to sail off into the sunset (though there are days when the sunset beckons). But I’m learning, slowly but surely, how and when to take a step back, letting other, younger players step in. It means transitioning from being the "sage on the stage" to becoming a "guide on the side," not always a seamless makeover for an extrovert who enjoys the limelight.

Of course, these two roles — sage and guide — aren’t mutually exclusive. There remain plenty of opportunities to be in the front of the room, and I relish those. But sustainability, more than most other careers, has a higher calling — the greater good, the future well-being of our companies, our communities and our world. To simply do my thing, however rewarding and fulfilling, and not encourage and empower others still finding their way feels like a dereliction of duty.

By the way, one doesn’t need to be looking at the back end of their career to participate. I know plenty of professionals in their 50s, 40s, even 30s who actively coach or mentor their younger colleagues. Sometimes, it’s simply a nonjudgmental ear to whom one can ask "dumb" questions. Of course, many of those questions are the same ones we once asked.

Entrepreneur Chip Conley, who popularized the notion of "modern elders," points out that where knowledge is additive, wisdom is, fundamentally, a subtractive virtue. Wise people filter insights when others get lost inside mountains of knowledge, he notes. For those of us who have acquired some quantity of knowledge over time, it can be revelatory to boil things down to their essence and share that wisdom with those eager to gain from it. 

Different mindset

So, how will you support this new generation of sustainability professionals? How will you show up for the leaders of tomorrow? What actions will you take to shorten their learning curve and accelerate their rise into positions of influence and authority? How can they more effectively follow in your footsteps — or chart their own path?

It’s easy to slough all this off. You’ve got a lot on your plate. You’re overworked and under-resourced. You generally like the status quo. You’re not ready to let others push you aside. Besides, the young ’uns aren’t yet truly ready to take the reins.

All good. Supporting young leaders needn’t be a huge time sink. It shouldn’t require you to give anything up. You don’t have to step back or step aside until you’re good and ready.

But we’re in a different time that requires a different mindset, a new way of thinking about the role of a sustainability professional beyond one’s formal job description. It’s about broadening the tent, growing the field, accelerating our collective impact.

It can be endlessly gratifying and immeasurably valuable.

Indeed, there may be no more important or fulfilling work that many of us will do.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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