Dear Shannon: How can I interview for top sustainability talent?

Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: How can I interview for top sustainability talent?

Job candidates by baranq via Shutterstock

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I'm a hiring manager at a small mission-based organization based in Portland, Oregon. Our company is committed to incorporating sustainability into our bottom line and long-term strategy. We are starting to look for new talent that can lead change in all of our new hires. That said, we are feeling a bit lost about how to assess sustainability skills during the interview process. Any ideas?

Pat in Portland

Dear Pat,

As a sustainability career coach and former HR exec, I hear about the challenges of hiring the right person for corporate responsibility or impact roles from both sides of the fence. Job seekers see mountains of competition and no defined career track for the roles they want, while hiring managers see vague personal profiles and CVs and a complex, heterogeneous, career changing talent pool.

According to leading CSR and sustainability recruitment agency, Acre, whichever phase of the sustainability journey an organization is in, the individuals leading the strategy need to understand that it's not a static function. Rather, sustainability is a continually evolving business strategy that underpins the organization. For hiring managers this means that they must respond in real time to ever-changing skillsets and competencies when recruiting new talent.

How to assess core sustainability competencies

In a recent article, I outlined my top five crucial skillsets or competencies that a CSR or sustainability practitioner will need in their arsenal. Now, I’m sharing the challenging questions that really get to the heart of these competencies in a job interview context to help hiring managers sift out the gems.

If you're looking for the best talent but finding it hard to spot, or if you are the talent but struggling to land your dream job, then  read through these 5 questions and consider how they could help you to find or be that chosen gem. If you’re a job seeker, take these questions one at a time and write out your answers. They will reveal a lot.

1. Bravery and resilience: This is all about your ability to lead change in an organization, and bounce back when times get tough.

· Tell me about a time when you were challenged to stay committed to a project.

· How did you overcome your fear to take it to fruition?

· When you feel uncomfortable in a situation what do you do? Give an example.

2. Ability to balance global and local perspectives: This relates to the need to view sustainability at different scales within the organization and its markets.

· How have you been able to deliver and measure tangible impact in a global or local context?

· What are the challenges you see in being able to balance global and local perspectives?

· How could we as an organization scale up to bring our local programs global?

3. Innovative and systems thinking: This is the big picture stuff, the fitting together of the jigsaw puzzle that brings individual sustainability initiatives together into a holistic vision for the organization, the sector and the world.

· How do you see the different elements of the sustainability agenda fitting together?

· How will innovation help to develop a more sustainable economy?

4. Influencing and negotiating: This is how you work with others to achieve your objectives, your interpersonal skills.

· Give me an example of a time you had to convince someone to do something they didn't want to do?

· What is your approach to negotiating with someone strong headed?

· How would you go about getting diverse stakeholders on board for a new idea?

5. Engaging others in the on the journey on their terms: This is all about empathy and understanding for other people’s positions, and of course communication.

· Tell me about a time you had to gain buy-in from senior management and how you did it?

· How would you go about getting other departments on board for an idea for sustainability?

· What are the three key steps you would take to get others to follow you on your journey?

A sustainability lens on standard interview questions

Of course, the more standard interview questions can also reveal much about how an applicant might perform in a sustainability role. One of my favorite sources of old school interview questions and answers is this 1984 book excerpt. Not much has changed in the intervening 30 years.

Questions such as "Tell me about yourself" and "Walk me through your resume," remain a set-up to see if the candidate has done their homework and can make their recent career experience relevant to the role, company culture and organizational needs. "What do you know about the company?" is another question that helps hiring managers see how well the candidate understands the organization and why they want to work there, and if their values are aligned.

Other questions, such as, "What is one question you wish I'd asked you?" can expose the scale of a job seeker’s ambitions and give insight into their blue-sky thinking. "What you do in the first 30, 60 and 90 days of this job?" can shed light onto a candidate’s strategic approach to delivering results with diplomacy. How they'll approach the role and the internal politics is an important indicator of how they’ll fit into the existing team and be able to make progress against key performance indicators.

Front-load the tough questions

Some techniques for finding top sustainability talentsuch as the one used by leading sustainability consultancy, BSRput the tough questions right at the beginning of the hiring process. For a senior role as director of the women’s empowerment organization HERProject, the online application required candidates to give written answers to more than 10 additional questions of up to 300 words each. 

Some of the questions ranged from working with a global workforce to project management to health interventions. Here are some examples:

1. “Please describe your philosophy on working with a global workforce. Please include, how would you provide support and mentor staff, as well as understand different cultural aspects to support success.”

2. “Please describe an example of a project that you have worked on and are proud of, including: the objective, outcomes, the relationships/partners which contributed to success, and the challenges, and how you overcame them.”

3. “Describe an intervention that you have seen implemented badly. Or which had poor or limited impact. What did you learn from that experience?”

This may seem more like a graduate school application than a standard job application, but it’s a great way to screen out the talent that is not willing to put the time into a considerate application. For those that do engage, their commitment and passion shine through. 

Preparation is the key to success. Let me know whether these questions helped you recruit the right people for your sustainability team, or if they helped you prepare for an interview for your dream sustainability job.

Top image of job interview candidates by baranq via Shutterstock