Master class: Why a career is a series of apprenticeships

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Eleven and a half years can be a long or a short period of time, depending on your evaluation perspective. For me, it was the right length of time to serve as the World Environment Center’s president and CEO and continue a career-planning path built on adaptation and change.

As I enter the 40th year of my career, I look back to conclude that I really did end up with the kind of career that I thought I would have. Having grown up in a small coal mining town in western Pennsylvania — where the creeks were yellow from acid mine drainage, and the boney piles were high resulting from decades of coal extraction — I was probably predisposed to develop a career focused on environmental protection. Initially, my thinking was oriented towards becoming a lawyer but, after receiving an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University, I redirected my interests to research the evolution of water pollution control technology and its impact on public policy.

Here are five key principles and practices that have guided my career planning:

  • Choose your mentors — don’t wait for them to choose you. I was intellectually interested in learning from people whose interests evolved from the specific to the general, whose career paths transcended disciplines or institutions and who understood the power of narrative. My strategy was simple: to make myself a resource for my mentors’ success and to learn and benefit from them. My first mentor was my academic advisor at Carnegie Mellon, Joel A. Tarr. In the 1970s, he held a triple appointment in the Departments of History and Civil Engineering and the School of Urban and Public Affairs. My next mentor was former EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus (who was Deputy Attorney General when fired by President Richard Nixon during the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, and subsequently a private-sector executive before returning to EPA in 1983-85, when I worked for him). It’s also important to continue selecting new mentors at different stages of your career. Currently, my mentors are small business entrepreneurs in developing nations and millennials adept at social media.
  • Be honest in assessing your own capabilities and interests. I have never wanted to be an expert about anything, and my quantitative skills are limited. In contrast, I have a great respect for the deep knowledge contained in specific disciplines and look for opportunities to build coalitions of different kinds of expertise necessary to solve problems across scientific, public policy and business institutions. In practice, this requires both curiosity and discipline to stay informed about changing scientific ideas and trends, even while thinking about how the chessboard of organizational objectives and strategy continue to evolve.
  • Disrupt yourself. In the five senior-level positions I held between 1978 to 2018, I initiated the change in the arc of my career on four occasions. After the initial career transitions, I became even less risk-averse and more thoughtful about how each subsequent stage could fill important knowledge and experience gaps. After nearly 10 years at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, I was interested in learning how the private sector functioned and was appointed Vice President for Health and Environment at the American Petroleum Institute, where I frequently briefed CEOs on air quality, waste management and pollution prevention, climate change and negotiating regulatory standards for cleaner fuels. After four years at API, I became interested in working in a more entrepreneurial fashion and became executive vice president of a major consulting firm for 5.5 years, followed by service as vice president of responsible care at the American Chemistry Council, where I again worked closely with CEOs to transform industrywide transparency and governance of its signature environmental, health and safety performance initiative. My positions at EPA, API and ACC also had an international portfolio, a natural precursor to leading the World Environment Center. Disrupting one’s career need not require departing an employer, as many opportunities emerge from the constantly changing needs within individual organizations.
  • Participate in issues larger than yourself and be true to your values. Every organization, large or small, continuously must earn society’s license to exist. Some interpret this narrowly by obeying the law, generating profits and carefully managing the execution of its literal mission. Others seek to impact society on a grander scale by addressing inequality, diversity and educational challenges or by encouraging employees to contribute talent and time to solving social problems. Each of us must make an individual decision, consistent with our personal values, on which type of organization to work for. I once left an employer sooner than I expected because its advocacy moved in a direction that I could not support. I’ll admit to perhaps being naïve at the time but, in retrospect, I made the correct decision.
  • Let your network assist your recruiting. Every position I’ve held resulted from my professional network. At Carnegie Mellon, one of my thesis advisors, Francis C. McMichael, served on EPA’s Science Advisory Board and knew about a staff vacancy to which I successfully applied. Former reporter David Clarke informed me of a VP-level vacancy at ACC. And former DuPont executive Paul Tebo notified me that the World Environment Center was seeking a new chief executive. Every employee has a network. Develop its potential and put it to work in your behalf. As I seek my next position, I am regularly in touch with my network members, while always trying to stimulate their thinking on major sustainability challenges.

When I accepted the WEC position in 2006, I was at a much earlier stage of understanding sustainability strategies and practices. WEC has been a great laboratory for discovery and practical implementation of sustainability thinking at all levels. I leave with even greater excitement and commitment about the possibilities for change.

As I reflect on my WEC years, there are several big challenges that, even if partially resolved, can create significant momentum to protecting our planet and society for future generations. They include:

  • Improving the performance of businesses that don’t seek to become market leaders. In practice, this means working with individual companies and through business federations to institute appropriate transparency and governance programs so that we really do know that commitments are being implemented and shortcomings corrected. Meanwhile, we continue to work with the top 20 percent to keep raising the performance bar through more ambitious goal setting and business transformations.
  • Personalizing sustainability benefits. My two grandfathers, my father and five of eight uncles all worked in the western Pennylvania coal mines. Many of my cousins find the sustainability language and message to be impenetrable and are, therefore, skeptical if not hostile towards it. At the same time, they support clean air, land and water. We need to be doing a much better job at explaining what we want to achieve and why our success translates into opportunities for their success. At this juncture, we’re a long way from home.
  • Preparing the next generation of leaders to implement sustainability. To avoid the current dilemma of having to educate leaders in catch-up mode, we need to integrate sustainable thinking much earlier in career planning so that students and mid-career managers already have mastered sustainability fundamentals and its value proposition as they ascend their respective career ladders. While there are many individually successful university and corporate sustainability initiatives and programs, the integrated whole still falls short of the sum of the parts.
  • Correcting policy failures. Environmental sustainability policy has taken a drastic turn in the wrong direction in the United States, and threatens to do so in other countries. This development places an added burden to rethink and refresh strategies for advocating public health and environmental protection, supporting scientific and technology investments, re-committing to appointing independent and qualified scientists to advise government agencies, removing tax policies and incentives that encourage wasteful consumption of resources, and designing cost effective public policies that embody flexibility and encourage innovation. None of these things will happen without grassroots support and strong business advocacy.

I haven’t decided on my next career path at this exact moment, but you can be sure that I’ll be thinking and writing on these and other topics in the days ahead. 

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