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How sustainability professionals must lead in 2017

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Post-election, we all are facing more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. As a result, the sustainability professional’s work has just become even more important.  

Let’s take a look at a few items on the 2017 laundry list: We have a new, controversial president-elect, a vociferous commitment to honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement from attending leaders at COP22, and ongoing news about the growth of renewable energy at cost parity. We have much more action on sustainability at the city and municipality levels, global trade unrest, increasing cadence of support for the Sustainable Development Goals as a progress roadmap. And continued research indicates that millennials would rather work at purpose-led and mission-aligned organizations.

How does this laundry list affect the sustainability professional in 2017? For one, it affects how professionals (and millennials at start of their career) could begin to shift their understanding of, and approach to, impact jobs. Second,  there is burgeoning category of jobs focused on the wide ranging issue area of inclusion.

Evolving impact

Psychologist Steven Schein wrote about the psychology behind our interest in pursuing sustainability as a career. Many sustainability professionals will admit that past experiences of dissatisfaction with the status quo or the need for deeper impact led them to arc their careers toward sustainability. This election  perhaps more than any other in recent history  will be formational for many seeking impact careers by questioning what exactly they want to achieve.  

Many professionals and jobseekers will develop a new meaning for "purpose work" or "impact." For example: Around inclusion, how is a company addressing disenfranchised communities? Or creating the opportunities required by an increasingly purpose-minded workforce to have greater impact on their communities? Perhaps some will take a path in the public sector and run for office.

From a corporate perspective, this opens up a whole set of questions around purpose, relevance and what companies need to do to continue to adapt to changing realities about employees’ shifting priorities and employer expectations. Fractured communities and disenfranchisement can lead to volatility. There is an opportunity, particularly for companies employing people on both sides of the divide, to catalyze a healthy reconstruction of how we work together and thrive together. 

That in turn will require us as managers, mentors, leaders and advisers to become better at change management, connecting the dots between behaviors, influence, habits, priorities and systems thinking. 

Building inclusive economies

Of course, then there are all the programmatic elements of what it means to create inclusive economies, communities and workplaces. This isn’t brand new. Twenty years ago, we called it "community economic development," but that lost support. 

I find it ironic that the work around sustainability and human rights in the supply chain was created about 20 years ago in a direct response to globalization  being held accountable for the impacts of worker within the supply chain abroad when jobs left the U.S. Now we see the results of that neglect. Inclusive economy work includes what to do with workers when a company dismisses employees.

Jobs targeting inclusive economy could surge as colliding factors of increasing awareness, a divided nation and a rising acknowledgment of needing to do their part as businesses come together. We’ll need facilitators, researchers, writers, academia, communicators, project managers, program managers, fundraising experts, campaigners, policymakers, lobbyists, scientists, social media experts and a whole host of other skills to fill these.

Every forward-looking organization will be at the forefront. Foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation are leading the charge on seeding the building blocks. Nongovernmental organizations such as BSR, WRI, WBCSD and others are leading the advocacy and program setting elements to the public. Private organizations including corporations leading the piloting, scaling and mainstreaming of these efforts.

What sustainability professionals should know

There are three main ways that sustainability professionals can lead the charge into the future:

  1. Refine your core skill and then identify the sector or organization where you can have the most impact. Don’t start with the job title.
  2. Invest some time in becoming a better listener and reopen yourself to learning about human behavior. Listening will help you become better at strategy setting, change management and catalyzing the change you want to see happen. 
  3. Lead from the front but also be open to following. Now more than ever, we need more leaders who can see the advantage of collective action. But equally importantly, we need to be active participants in civil society. 
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