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So you’re the first sustainability hire. Now what?

With sustainability gaining steam even in small companies, how does a new sustainability hire set themselves up for success?

Women shrugging

What to do when you are the first member of a sustainability team. Image via Julia Vann/Greenbiz.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email [email protected]. ]

You’ve been offered your dream job tackling sustainability issues for a company that is in the nascent stages of embedding sustainability into its operations and culture. But you’re starting from the ground up. No team. Just you. What’s the roadmap to success? With a master of environmental management degree from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, concentrating on business and the environment, I have spent the past five years focusing on corporate social responsibility objectives across multiple industries. Food manufacturing and distribution is my current focus; however, I also have worked across various sectors in the renewables industry and sustainability consulting.

Sustainability often means something different to each company. The definition of sustainability is heavily affected by various key stakeholders, inclusive of customers and investors. Here’s a foundational guide to leveraging your sustainability know-how and create real change that is digestible, presentable, and advantageous for your key customers — your new colleagues.

Week One. Don’t be a stranger. Introduce yourself to your colleagues. This is where that quintessential "elevator pitch" comes in. In other words, sell yourself. In these conversations, gauge others interest in and understanding of the new sustainability role. Engage with leadership to better understand the "why" behind the new sustainability program. Who made the initial ask? Is this primarily an internal or external request? What was the nature of the request? Knowing whether a formalized sustainability program is a requirement, recommendation or a nice-to-have is key to better navigating and prioritizing tasks during the first few months on the job.

Month One. Develop a background analysis on industry peers and competitors to gather as much intel as you can about how the company is positioned within the industry regarding the maturity of its sustainability initiatives. This is where the nuance between sustainability and ESG comes into play. Within this peer analysis, break down initiatives between the environmental, the social and the governance. Identify which area the company has strong performance versus more lagging categories. Keep this in your back pocket for upcoming tasks.

To support your general background review of the company and overall knowledge base of business priorities, set up Google alerts for both your company and the industry. If you know of a few companies with exemplary sustainability programs, add a few Google alerts for those as well.

Quick tip: Create a corporate sustainability email address to receive all Google alert news to avoid the dreaded inbox overwhelm.

After the first 90 days, send out weekly articles to leadership to draw attention to and further educate on industry sustainability priorities and advancements.

Month Two. Understand the history of the company’s sustainability reporting. Do they have any former reporting against common frameworks such as GRI, SASB, TCFD and CDP? If these don’t exist, pull the reporting frameworks to create your own template for mapping out the information that will be needed as a part of your role.

Quick tip: Ask all the questions. Better to ask than start developing project plans which are not desired or budgeted. For example, has leadership approved an annual sustainability report?

Month Three. After you have gotten a better feel for the primary drivers of your role and how the company plays into the larger industry’s sustainability initiatives and objectives, data is the next priority and arguably the most important piece of building a sustainable foundation. Below are some key questions to ask your colleagues.

  • Has the company tracked any metrics across environmental, social and/or governance issues in the past?
  • Has a materiality assessment been conducted? If not, develop a budget and stakeholder plan to start the process sooner rather than later.
  • Is there an appetite for implementation of sustainability software in the future? Communication with the IT department will become critical, if so.
  • Is it possible to hire an analyst to assist with utility data collection?

All these data questions come back to budget. What’s feasible in year one?

Year One. Create the roadmap. What have you learned during the first few months? Which areas have you identified as key priorities? If there are any easy wins or "low-hanging fruit," identify these as the first orders of business in the roadmap to not only limit budgetary spend, but to also boost morale and internal involvement with the sustainability program.

Ensure that you receive several teams’ or business units’ feedback regarding your initial analysis and roadmap. Establish a quarterly review cadence with leadership regarding progress, spend and what’s on the horizon. Goal setting should be a topic of discussion during all reviews with leadership to gauge interest, such as pledging alignment with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

Future actions to consider

Along with the roadmap, here are a few additional actions to advance sustainability interest within your organization, and keep your skills on par.

  1. Develop internal education materials, such as "Sustainability 101" resources. Make sure you are addressing the appropriate audience with each resource. Therefore, having several versions of one type of resource is incredibly helpful when needing to have documentation you can pull from quickly for various audiences (board meetings, employee trainings). The more you can spread the word and educate, the better.
  2. Get plugged in with the industry. Connect with colleagues through industry associations, and outside of the industry. Sustainability isn’t specific to just one industry. Prioritizing initiatives and engagements that are specific to the issues most material to your business is a great first step.
  3. Keep a beat on your qualifications. Is it time for a new certification? There are dozens of certifications out there which can be overwhelming. Consult with your colleagues in similar roles to discuss what courses and/or certifications may best support you in further developing not just your company’s sustainability initiatives, but also your own career.

Sustainability roles are industry-agnostic and here to stay. Without these fundamental roles, companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes time to make sound and sustainable business decisions. Sustainability infiltrates all aspects of the way businesses conduct themselves. And your role, and the future team’s roles, are extremely critical in business decisions moving forward.

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