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Sustainability policy careers: Changing the rules of the game

<p>Neither business nor policy can adequately address sustainability alone. What if you could combine the two?</p>

Are you (1) a patient leader and a systems thinker? Or (2) an impatient leader who likes to build things?

When I counsel students interested in careers in sustainability, I direct them down two paths: policy and business.

A policy career is about changing the rules of the game. Through government action, and within corporations, NGO’s and agencies, policies incentivize behavior, sustainable or otherwise. From international treaties governing trade and investment, to national policies on energy, agriculture and transport, to local zoning and transit regulations, getting rid of bad rules and putting good ones in place is critical for progress .

One example: Microsoft recently introduced an internal carbon tax. This new policy makes carbon intensive activities, like flying, more expensive, and will push company budget managers to find substitutes for their teams— video conferencing for example. The policy also creates a pool of money for Microsoft to incentivize energy efficiency and renewable investments, helping build a more local and resilient energy system within the company.

What are the types of policy jobs? Careers include analysts and decision-makers, administrators and organizers, sustainability professionals, advocates and lobbyists, journalists and educators, and politicians and political staff. Policy work, while mostly located in the NGO and government sectors, is also a big part of what drives CSR and corporate sustainability.

Policy careers are for folks with patience, who understand how natural and social systems work, and who have strong analytical, writing and communication skills. Successful policy people are good at outreach and networking, and politically saavy.

While a policy career works on changing the rules of the game, business is about playing the game. Within the confines of existing policies, sustainable business leaders set about solving social and environmental problems by creating profitable solutions and bringing them to scale. Solutions must be profitable to be financially sustainable and self-replicating, ensuring they spread quickly to seriously address the problem in question.

Careers in this field include all the functional areas of business: from marketing and sales to finance, operations, accounting, strategy, and HR. Sustainable business people are change agents, acting either as entrepreneurs in start-ups or as intrapreneurs in established companies, refocusing the direction of the business on opportunities to profitably solve environmental and social challenges. Business skills can be applied in the corporate, government or non-profit world.

A business career calls to people with impatience, and a talent for building things, who have strong analytical, writing and communication skills. They are good at outreach and networking, and politically savvy.

Notice the overlap in the business and policy skill set here. The common key to career success and satisfaction in the sustainability field is the ability and desire to lead, not to manage. By definition, driving sustainability—either through rule-changing or game-playing—involves taking people where they otherwise would not go, and inspiring others to lead in the same direction.

Imagine: 80 percent reductions in global warming pollution by 2050; rewiring the world with clean energy; re-designing the global food system. We can’t manage our way to these outcomes. Both policy and business demand entrepreneurial, innovative strategies to meet the profound challenges of the coming decades.

The final point: neither business nor policy can get the job done alone. Anyone playing the green business game soon bumps into policy constraints. And sustainable policy advocates need critical business support to drive good changes in the rules. Around the country and across the globe, wherever we see vibrant, emerging green economies are the places where smart policy-makers work synergistically with green industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

So which career suits you best? Glad to talk further. Contact me at

Image of Man with blank sign outside by Stephen Finn; inset of pollution and clean energy by Tom Wang, both via Shutterstock. Photo collage by GreenBiz Group

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