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Sustainability careers of the future require depth and breadth

As the idea of what makes an environmental career grows, so will the number of specialists and generalists.

It’s that time of year again: The launch of the GreenBiz State of the Profession report, which looks at the evolving role of sustainability leaders and practitioners in business today. As in past years, I partnered with GreenBiz to help expand the number of people surveyed. (Take note: This year’s report captures insights from nearly double the number of people from outside the United States, which paints a more accurate picture of this global field.)

Among the report’s notable findings — including that sustainability programs are themselves more sustainable, and that the field is achieving gender pay parity — I found two trends most compelling: As the field of sustainability has matured, sustainability careers are growing in terms of breadth and depth. In other words, there’s an expanding need for both executives who have a diverse background to lead on myriad issues, and for specialists who can manage and ensure impact on these issues. 

This is good news because it means there are pathways for generalists and specialists alike.

Breadth: Companies need more sustainability generalists

One of the report’s main findings is that companies are looking outside their business for talent: Today, two-thirds of vice presidents, managers and individual contributors, and 56 percent of directors, are being hired from other companies and industries. In the past, up to 50 percent of these roles were filled internally. This change is due in part to the fact that companies recognize the benefit in bringing in leaders who offer broad perspectives based on their experience building sustainability programs elsewhere.

This speaks to the need for people with a breadth of experience. The issues under the sustainability umbrella keep growing, and sustainability professionals’ responsibilities also have transformed, from tactical roles such as publishing reports and engaging stakeholders to more strategic roles such as change management and innovation.

In an interview for the report, Campbell Soup Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer Dave Stangis said he is seeing "more strategic alignment from the leaders in the sustainability office with the business strategy, so that one is enabling the other. ... The sustainability teams are really just helping business now."

These changes are seeding the demand for the corporate sustainability generalist: someone who sees the bigger picture, understands the trends and has great management skills.
These changes are seeding the demand for the corporate sustainability generalist: someone who sees the bigger picture, understands the trends affecting business, people and the planet, and has great management skills. In the past, I have written about essential skills for next-generation CSR leaders — including the ability to create capacity, catalyze conversations and behavior change and collaborate across the business, industry and sectors. A BSR report I wrote about earlier this year underscores the need for sustainability leaders who embrace new roles as value creators, futurists and change agents.

What does all this mean for aspiring sustainability generalists? Develop the breadth of your skills. Create sustainability success stories at your current employer. Learn about your business and be able to explain to anyone at your company why sustainability matters to their function. Track trends affecting other industries and consider how they might eventually affect yours. Engage people across your company, in your industry and beyond to develop strategies for shared value and net positive impact. In an interview for the report, Cargill Global Sustainability Leader Jill Kolling predicts that future sustainability executives will need to be well-versed in data and analytics, which will serve as the foundation for strategic decisions such as new customer offerings.

I also encourage junior sustainability professionals to seek out mentors who possess these skills, and for leaders to cultivate these skills in rising stars. 

Depth: Companies need more specialists, too

Even as companies look for more sustainability generalists, the opportunities for specialists are also growing — a trend GreenBiz notes is the field’s biggest change since GreenBiz began conducting this research five years ago.

The number of sustainability personnel in facilities has grown by 15 percentage points since 2014, and the number of sustainability people in supply chain departments has gone up even more, by 21 percentage points. Not surprisingly, the size of sustainability teams is also growing: 41 percent of report respondents at large companies said their team increased in the past two years.

Companies are tackling more issues, increasing their ambition for scale and impact, improving their transparency, developing more holistic programs, forming more partnerships.
The growth of specialists is happening in part because the field is becoming more sophisticated. Companies are tackling more issues, increasing their ambition for scale and impact, improving their transparency, developing more holistic programs, forming more partnerships, collecting more data and seeking to make greater change deeper in their supply chains and across the value chain. All of these changes require specialists to manage, implement and track progress.

For instance, Val Smith, Citi’s managing director and global head of corporate sustainability, told the report authors that banks have developed specialized finance teams and teams dedicated to green buildings and facilities. The report also notes that energy procurement is a growing area of specialization. Between 2008 and 2013, only four companies had renewable energy deals. Since 2013, 51 more companies have pursued similar deals. Other new opportunities that could develop a need for specialists include the circular economy, gender, equity, sustainable finance and plastics.

My advice for people looking to specialize? First, let your passion be your guide. Then focus on areas in your industry where customers and investors — the two stakeholder groups GreenBiz report respondents said have the greatest influence over their company’s sustainability program — are asking questions and exerting pressure. Finally, look at your skillset and understand how you can add value in these areas.

Ultimately, the generalists and the specialists are working hand in hand: As the generalists forge a leadership path on bold initiatives, the specialists ensure programs are implemented for real, on-the-ground impact. As these trends advance, I believe the number and diversity of sustainability jobs will continue to grow.

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