Dear Shannon: How to make a mid-career leap into sustainability
You’re already well-established in your career, but the grass is greener where it’s — well, greener. These tips will help you jump the fence.
If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].
I’m hoping you can help me make a career change. I have worked in publishing for the last 15 years in both production and marketing roles. Three years ago, my company implemented a sustainability policy and since then I’ve helped deliver the annual sustainability report, investigated sustainable supply chain options and put together several employee volunteering initiatives. At the moment, sustainability only constitutes about 10 percent of my work time but I’d love it to be 100 percent. While I’m not an environmentalist or a scientist, I have read extensively on the subject of sustainable business, done free online courses and last year attended a big sustainability conference. My family thinks I’m mad to consider leaving a stable job in a successful company for something new and unknown, but I want to explore my options. Where should I start?
After 15 years in one industry, it’s no wonder you’re itching for change. Like so many other mid-career professionals, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the exciting world of sustainability through your current role, and you like what you see.
And why wouldn’t you? Corporate responsibility and sustainability is an invigorating space to work in. New, constantly evolving, varied, dynamic, game-changing, planet-saving and respectably remunerated. It’s the place to be for people who want to live their values without swapping their Birkin for Birkenstocks (OK, well, maybe not an actual Birkin, but you know what I mean).
A sizeable proportion of my career-coaching clients are in position similar to yours. A big part of my day is spent advising people with established skill sets and extensive experience on how to transition out of their safe, stable roles and into something that aligns more closely with their personal ethics.
In short, you’re not alone. More than that, the competition is fierce: The average number of applicants per sustainability role is around 200.
This is why breaking in is so challenging, and also why you mustn't go at it without having done your homework. You have one shot to create your personal brand and make the right impact on the market, so make sure you're ready. You'll need a strategy that reframes your career history and repositions you as a sustainability guru-in-waiting for the right job.
Here are some helpful tips to get you thinking about what you want and how to get it.
Keeping your options open doesn't help you with a sustainability job search as you need to sell your skills and abilities differently to different audiences and you only get one profile on LinkedIn now. Also, hiring managers can tell if you have just tweaked a generic personal story for them rather than really targeting their company, brand, sector and role. This is why you need to specifically target the kind of role and culture you want.
I get my clients to think about this by peeling the sustainability onion: the top layers are the global versus local contexts you need to choose from; the middle layers are the sector (NGO, public or private) and industry (consumer goods, financial services, oil and gas); the inner layer is around your role and function and defines which skills you'll use (analysis, research, reporting, communications); and at the core is your issues expertise — knowledge of waste, human rights, natural capital, water, life cycle analysis and so forth.
Map your skills
Get online and start hunting for jobs you think you'd like to do and use my skills mapping technique to see if you measure up. Start by picking apart the essential and desirable criteria and copying and pasting them into skill themes or categories — for instance: communications; research/analysis; and management.
In another document, make a list of your own key skills and abilities, then cross-reference them for a quick and easy gap analysis. This will show you your strengths and weaknesses — warts and all — in relation to a particular role and also give you an insight into what the market is looking for to better customize your story for the application.
Plug the gaps
The weaknesses you identified above are key to the next phase of your career transition strategy. This is where you figure out what you need to add to your CV in order to get your dream job: technical skills; issue expertise; or soft skills.
Working for free can be a great way of up-skilling without the need for expensive training courses or college programs, provided you do it strategically. A good volunteer experience should use your core skills to help you develop new, transferrable skills that make your CV stronger. It also should have tangible impacts that can be measured or counted to help you make stronger statements about your sustainability experience on your CV and in interviews. It will deepen and diversify your network of contacts and ultimately help you make the kind of connections that will steer you towards your new career.
I hope these tips help you get off to a positive start on your career-change journey. Be brave and explore, and embrace the challenge. Contact me if you'd like a introductory 30-minute CV critique to help discuss your positioning, challenges and career in more detail.