How to make a career change into sustainability management

How to make a career change into sustainability management

Sustainability name tag image by Rob Byron via Shutterstock.

As with journalism and other fields, some go to school for it while others learn on the job. If you're among the latter, what hands-on experience and skills do you really need for this work?

As sustainability becomes more deeply embedded in global business, an increasing number of diverse professionals are wondering how to break in. A third of CEOs take a long-term view of sustainability and 95 percent of companies have a sustainability program management office at HQ level, according to a Verdantix report published late last year.

Opportunities abound, but how to get hold of them? Going back to school is an option for some, but learning in the field is the best way for others. If you are among the latter, it's time to do your research.

Get to know the market

Before you invest the next decade's worth of exotic holidays in paying off your student debt, figure out what the market really wants (Hint: it's not a green MBA).

BCCC's Profile of the Professionals report revealed that the majority of corporate citizenship roles were filled by people already in the company. These findings are consistent with Greenbiz's own 2013 State of the Profession survey, which showed that 55 percent of corporate responsibility (CR) and sustainability professionals came to their position internally. This shows that, above all, businesses value understanding what they do above specialist skills.

It's helpful to look at the different job functions and skills for in-house and consultant practitioners to help you decide what route to take based on your own profile. Acre's 2012 CR and Sustainability Salary Survey is a good place to start:

In-house:
1. CR/Sustainability strategy development and implementation
2. Environment
3. Community investment
4. Reporting/Performance measurement
5. Carbon/Energy management

Consultant:
1. CR/Sustainability strategy development and implementation
2. Auditing/Assurance
3. Carbon/Energy management
4. Reporting/Performance measurement
5. Environment

Note that auditing and assurance feature highly on the consultant's list but not at all on the in-house list. If your background is in finance or accounting, this is an important point to note -- maybe you should focus on integrated reporting and aim for a consultancy working with clients in your current sector. The path you take to your dream sustainability job will be based on your previous sector and industry experience. Not leveraging this will set your career (and salary) back, so why not apply a CR perspective to your own career path and put a new lens on what you already have to achieve maximum results?

BCCC's report also shows that the most CR professionals got there through either corporate communications, marketing, sales and PR or environment, government and nonprofit roles. Less than 10 percent came from operations or line management. This tells us that communications skills and an understanding of policy, regulation and environmental management are big sellers. The Corporate Responsibility Officer Association's Structuring and Staffing Guidebook zones in on this with a breakdown of the key skills and knowledge required for roles in the CR space. These include:

Knowledge:
Economic, social and environmental sustainability
Governance
Stakeholder engagement
Ethics

Skills:
Strategy development, execution and performance management
Change management
Communication
Industry and business acumen
Risk management

Research the meta-skills

CR and sustainability jobs -- irrespective of function, sector or scale -- all require the same set of subtle traits and characteristics, and you need to demonstrate them. A recent investigation by the LBG Research Institute (PHP) into the essential criteria for success among its Thought Leader Forum highlighted some general key competencies:

Interdisciplinary communications
Charisma and powers of persuasion
Able to deal with complex situations
Comfortable in for-profit and nonprofit environments
Understand the business and current issues in your industry and the world
Understand your communities, their issues and needs

These skills are echoed throughout the market. Mike Barry, the man behind Marks and Spencer's Plan A, cites the things he looks for in an employee:

The ability to translate science, a generalist rather than a specialist
The ability to lead change and chart a path through uncertainty
People skills and the ability to influence
Partnership skills to build mutual value
Innovation and trend spotting
Commercial credibility and understand the business

There's a lot of common ground. Whether your sustainability focus is community volunteering or greening the supply chain or integrated reporting, you need to show that you have what it takes to push the agenda forward among the "business as usual" crowd, who may well be your external stakeholders, colleagues or even your boss.

Identify your skills gaps

Transitioning out of traditional functions, such as marketing, finance, legal or operations, and into sustainability is possible, but don't expect to achieve it in one fell swoop. Instead, get to know the market by investigating which jobs are out there. Look at job descriptions for the kind of role you want and match your skills to the skillset required. Where are the gaps?

For example, transferring from communications into sustainability management may require a stopover in sustainability communications at a small organization where you can get to know the entire business. If you're in this for the long haul, break up the journey into interim goals, short and long-term, and focus on each individual leg to translate the skills and experience you'll need to arrive at your dream job.

But it doesn't end there. For a step-by-step guide on building a career-changing strategy, see last month's Dear Shannon column, where I advise a marketing executive in the oil and gas sector on how to move into sustainability.

Sustainability name tag image by Rob Byron via Shutterstock.