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5 steps to create a sustainability upskilling strategy for your company

Take these 5 actions to develop your employee sustainability training strategy based on your company’s unique priorities, budget and resources.

New skills, reskilling and upskilling written on asphalt road

Source: Shutterstock/smshoot

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on closing the sustainability skills gap with the resources we have available right now. Read the previous articles in this series, which cover training on climate literacy, scaling corporate climate literacy, corporate sustainability strategy, measuring and managing GHG emissions, climate and net-zero strategy, regenerative agriculture, circular economy, professional certifications and free training.

Over the past few years, I’ve had numerous conversations about sustainability upskilling with senior leaders from companies across multiple industries. While the conversations were usually focused on how they hope to get other employees the skills they need, many leaders confessed to me that they felt they were personally missing a key skill, too — the ability to develop a comprehensive sustainability training strategy for their company. 

Unfortunately, my research hasn’t uncovered a formal training offering on this topic yet, but I have met with several organizations that have developed effective strategies and I’ve identified some common elements of a successful plan. Below are five steps that you can take to develop your own sustainability upskilling strategy based on your organization’s unique set of objectives, budget and resources: 

  1. Decide who should be trained and what they should be trained on 
  2. Identify where to invest in customization 
  3. Determine who will do the training 
  4. Plan how the training will be delivered and distributed
  5. Budget for maintaining your content 

Read on to learn more about these steps and the options available to you for each one. If you know of other considerations to include, I warmly invite you to join the conversation on LinkedIn to share any insights with me and your fellow readers. 

1. Decide who should be trained and what they should be trained on

The answer to this million-dollar-question (or whatever your training budget is) depends on what your objectives are.

Leaders with employee engagement responsibilities value what broad sustainability skills training can deliver from an engagement and retention perspective and how it can help with the cultivation of a culture of sustainability. Many employees have a general interest in sustainability, enjoy learning and appreciate having opportunities to advance their skills. In addition, employees who either receive formal training or learn by participating in sustainability-related employee resource groups tend to feel more connected to the company and its mission and can even develop game-changing sustainability solutions. There’s inherent value in making training available to general employees even if it doesn’t have an obvious straight line to your carbon key performance indicators.

Leaders responsible for delivering on their company’s quantified sustainability goals understandably tend to focus more on training that can help to operationalize specific sustainability practices. They invest strategically in training for the handful of teams that have the greatest potential to move the needle on high-priority goals and public commitments. The best place to invest that energy varies significantly from company to company. For example, one heavy equipment manufacturer I spoke with is laser-focused on training for its product design and supply chain teams, whereas a corporate services provider I talked to is concentrating on training for its client-facing teams to help it better understand and communicate how its services can help customers to achieve their own sustainability goals.

In an ideal scenario, companies would do both — make general sustainability skills training available to all employees while also providing targeted training to the specific teams with the biggest potential for impact. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive and they support each other; however, most leaders I've spoken to are in roles or on teams that need to prioritize one approach over the other, usually due to time or budget constraints. 

Based on my conversations with senior sustainability leaders at large U.S. companies, here's a list of the teams prioritized most frequently and the topics those leaders want them to learn about:

  • Product, packaging, procurement and supply chain teams: The environmental and social implications of materials choices; life cycle assessment; product and packaging design for circularity; evaluating supplier sustainability claims; supplier engagement for data collection and performance improvement
  • Customer-facing teams including sales, business development and marketing: How the company’s products or services support customer ESG objectives; how to respond to customer questions or requests for ESG data; how to develop messaging about a product’s sustainability attributes without greenwashing
  • Facilities and operations teams: Reducing material inputs, energy use, carbon emissions, water use and waste from building and production facility operations
  • The board and senior leadership: ESG fundamentals; current and emerging reporting regulations, standards and frameworks; climate risk; the ESG commitments landscape, which goals to set and how to set them; drivers for audit-ready ESG data management practices
  • General employees: Climate or sustainability literacy; the company’s material sustainability issues, goals and initiatives; employee-related Scope 3 topics such as corporate travel and commuting; sustainable lifestyles
  • Customers and users: While this isn’t an internal audience, several software and services companies mentioned that educating this group on the sustainable use of their products or how their products supported sustainable objectives was their highest training priority

2. Identify where to invest in customization

The most effective training materials are customized so that they speak directly to what sustainability looks like within the context of your specific company or industry. For example, a general course on how to operate commercial buildings sustainably would be a great place to start for anyone responsible for that work; however, it’s much more effective if the course is customized to cover how to efficiently operate the specific equipment systems that your company uses, how to access internal funding for upgrades and who to contact for support or sharing great discoveries.

Unfortunately, as effective as customized content is, it takes considerable time, money and effort to develop and maintain, so for many companies customization is an approach that must be used sparingly. Most organizations prioritize customizing either company-wide training that provides an overview of the company’s material issues, goals and major initiatives, or role-specific training that provides tactical skills and information to people whose work affects the company’s most material issues.

3. Determine who will do the training

Sustainability skills training is usually performed by: 

  • The sustainability team, alone or in partnership with internal subject matter experts, the learning and development team or employee resource groups,
  • The sustainability team in partnership with external consultants who customize content,
  • External training providers who do not customize content, or
  • Online employee learning platforms or learning management system (LMS) content providers

Surprisingly, I’ve learned that in many cases the sustainability team’s bandwidth is the determinative factor for training program growth because no matter who performs the actual training, the sustainability team (understandably) needs to be involved in developing or approving content. 

Another limiting factor is that it’s difficult to find good providers. The consultant, training provider and learning platform landscape is rapidly evolving; it’s difficult to come up with a good list of providers to consider, let alone find providers who have both the right level of expertise on the topics you need support for and experience with the training delivery approach you want to use.

4. Plan how the training will be delivered and distributed

At this point in our post-pandemic world, we’re all well versed in the pros and cons of the in-person, live online and on-demand delivery options so I won’t go into those here. But the most forward-thinking companies are creating training content that is both on-demand and short. This delivery approach lowers the time and scheduling hurdles for learners and can significantly increase participation rates.

Distribution methodology is another big driver of participation rates. I've come across many examples of organizations in which the sustainability team delivers and distributes all training content; files are simply posted on a team intranet page or in a shared folder. While this option is cheap, easy to use and makes updating content easy, it does often mean that the content is harder for learners across the company to discover and access. 

In other organizations, the learning and development team distributes the training content, usually through an LMS. While sometimes this can mean that training takes a little longer to develop due to the logistics of ensuring that the training meets specific corporate standards, the scalability benefits are unparalleled. Distributing content through an LMS drastically increases participation rates and sometimes also means that courses can be translated into additional languages, which increases accessibility even further. In addition, partnerships with the learning and development team can make it easier to incorporate content into onboarding or annual training requirements if there’s leadership support for that.

There’s also a growing number of companies offering employees sustainability training through formal programs such as the EY Masters in Sustainability by Hult or Salesforce’s Trailhead. These take considerable resources and are understandably not an option for everyone, but they are fantastic for driving accessibility and participation and signal leadership’s commitment to developing these skills quite effectively. 

5. Budget for maintaining your content

Things can change quickly in sustainability — new regulations, standards updates, revised corporate goals and priorities — in some instances, your content may be out of date before anyone even sees it. Have a plan for regularly revisiting your content when conditions change and be sure to set aside some time and budget for the updates you’ll inevitably need to make.

Your next steps

If we could, we’d all be developing plans for training every employee on every sustainability topic that they need or want to learn; however, most of us have to come up with strategies that reflect the reality of our organization’s priorities and resources. I hope these five steps help you to develop your plans for targeting and customizing where you can, and outsourcing and generalizing where you can’t. If there are any topics that you’d like me to research for a future article, please join the conversation on LinkedIn to let me know. Until next time!

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