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Getting Real

My repertoire for Act II

How much of a sustainability exec's skillsets translates to the next phase of one's career?

As far as I’m concerned, my first act was a hit. Its closing number was a dream job that mattered, it had an extraordinary cast that left me with meaningful and long-lasting relationships, and I gained and got to showcase new talents throughout. Many of those learned skills are serving as the foundation of my next act, but it turns out that they’re not the ones on my bio.

With 20/20 hindsight, I’d have to say that the faculties I need now were probably also the ones that made Act I work. But they’re hidden behind the dry, objective litany of responsibilities and subject-matter knowledge that comprise my CV. Yes, I mention them. But "problem solver" and "avid learner" are not easily verified by total strangers (assuming that they even bother to read the intro paragraph). So, as with most of my career, connections with people who have seen me in action are providing new casting opportunities. 

With 20/20 hindsight, I’d have to say that the faculties I need now were probably also the ones that made Act I work.
As I look at possible roles, I’m having to remind myself of what I bring to the party (yes, that was a mixed metaphor. Live with it). The devil on my shoulder persists in whispering into my ear (I really do like metaphors) that I’m not an expert in this or that field and so don’t belong on a board serving that domain.

But lately, my angel started getting the upper hand, with a little help from a co-board member who reminded me that subject matter expertise was not what they need from me; they already had that in spades. That has me looking back at what I learned from my 40 years in tech and why it might be of use in a fresh setting. 

I should add that I’ve also recently met a few young people who are educated, knowledgeable and passionate, but who have tripped up just a little a bit lately and aren’t sure why. This is for you, too.

From oscillosopes to systems thinking

My career started in the budding field of IT as field service technician. My skills in reading oscilloscopes, soldering chips and writing machine code were not shabby. (Spoiler alert: I don’t use them anymore.) What I did learn, though, was to be proactive with customers; that asking them if anything was wrong meant they'd probably find some complaint that I had to deal with.

But I also learned that by doing so, I earned their trust. Years later, that commitment to listening served me well when engaging with stakeholders, and is helping me to be a more effective mentor of Climate Reality Leaders and facilitator of board discussions.

The innards of network protocols and routing algorithms that I picked up as a software engineer always got me pumped — they’re like giant logic puzzles and helped me better understand a technical problem or two later in my career. But they’re of little use now. Systems thinking, on the other hand — understanding relationships and context when trying to effect change — underlies my worldview and helps me to be open to other perspectives.

As a product manager, I had to have a good grasp of our business, including the financial flows, material flows, business model, customers and culture — not to mention technology. The specifics, while needed every day, no longer matter. I haven’t had to explain synchronous versus asynchronous replication in years.

Having basic financial acumen is of course useful on any board. Even more, the tools for discerning customer needs (as opposed to wants) taught me to separate interests from positions. That is exceedingly useful when leading a task force or committee or facilitating a problem-solving session. (The "5 Whys" is still one of the most oft-deployed instruments in my toolkit.)

The tools for discerning customer needs (as opposed to wants) taught me to separate interests from positions.
In the world of corporate sustainability, I had to learn about so many subjects: reporting protocols (GHG accounting, GRI, SASB, and so on); fascinating issues (forced labor, conflict minerals, BFR and PVC impacts, e-waste and on and on). All interesting and necessary for planning and communications when responsible for developing and implementing an organizational strategy.

I’m no longer doing those things, but what I am still doing every day — whether as an activist, advisor, consultant, mentor or board member — is applying critical thinking, influence techniques, presentation skills, facilitation approaches and negotiation methods.

Granted, there are gaps in my talents that not only would be useful now, but which my colleagues fervently wish I'd improved upon early in my career. They are probably numerous, but I’m self-aware enough to know that at the top of that list are patience and tolerance. (Back in my days as a consultant, my colleagues found a list of things you wish you could say during meetings, assigning each to the person most likely to have said them. They attributed to me, "I’ll try being a little nicer if you’ll try being a little smarter.")

But if I had to put my finger on the shortlist of attributes that are helping me most to contribute in a meaningful way to organizations and communities that matter to me, they are simply these: professionalism; reliability; responsiveness; and respect. And pivot tables, of course! 

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