For future CSOs, passion and social skills are the missing link

For future CSOs, passion and social skills are the missing link

For would-be sustainability professionals, a resume boasting impressive degrees is certainly important, and will help get a foot in the door. But what really counts on the job are interpersonal skills and a passion for sustainability, attributes that are often overlooked by job seekers, say experts.

According to a recent Vox Global/Weinreb Group report, 78 percent of sustainability leaders surveyed said they had assumed subject matter expertise would be the most important factor in predicting success. Once on the job, however, 100 percent of respondents said interpersonal skills turned out to be the most critical element to achieving their sustainability goals.

Ellen Weinreb, founder of the Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruiting firm, said interpersonal skills are crucial in overcoming a sustainability professional’s biggest challenge: moving things forward in a corporate culture that is often entrenched in the ways of the past.

“Sustainability professionals are like pioneers, forging new frontiers,” said Weinreb, who is also a columnist for GreenBiz. “Their job is to convince people who are used to doing things the traditional way to look at things differently.”

Changing mindsets is not an easy task. Sustainability professionals therefore need to act like corporate chameleons, said Weinreb, and learn to speak the language of whomever it is they are dealing with. They also need to work to educate and engage employees, and bring people from different departments together who normally wouldn’t do so.

But interpersonal skills are not easily learned, at least not in the way traditional business or technical skills are acquired, in a classroom setting. What might be of help to job seekers as well as sustainability leaders is a competency map developed by Business in the Community (BITC),a business-led charity in the U.K. that promotes corporate responsibility. The map helps individuals identify the skills they are lacking and work out how best to acquire these missing attributes.

For instance, if an individual identifies on the map that they lack the skill to influence from a position of little authority, they can click on this skill, which re-routes them to a page that details specific approaches that other practitioners used to acquire this expertise and achieve success.

“We suggest they use this map as a personal development planning tool to work out the gaps in their knowledge or experience and then work out how to fill these either by activities within their company, or more likely from peer to peer interactions with people facing the same problems,” said Stephen Gee, senior business development and support manager at BITC. 

Another critical skill is an abiding passion for sustainability, and the ability to demonstrate that passion, said Mark Brodeur, global sustainability director at Nestlé Purina Petcare Company.

People often think it’s their degree credentials that set them apart, but it’s really a deep passion for sustainability that separates a job seeker from others who may just have an interest in it, Brodeur said. Genuine enthusiasm for environmental change is key to motivating and inspiring people within your organization.

“It comes across instantly in interviews,” he said. “If they have passion, I know they’ll have a good chance of being successful.”

That’s not to say education isn’t important. Sustainability work is growing increasingly technical, said Weinreb, so an engineering degree is a huge asset in any sustainability department.

“The skills are very specific,” she said, “like knowing what the best way is to calculate carbon, or what sensors should be used to monitor carbon.”

Business skills are also essential, said Jonathan Nobbs, head of partnership development at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), especially when trying to get senior executives onboard.

“[Sustainability professionals] must have the ability to present a strong business case highlighting cost savings, business risk and opportunity, as well as understanding legislation and the implications for business both in the immediate and short term,” he said.

The ideal resume, said Weinreb, would list an industrial engineering undergraduate degree and an MBA.

But it’s rare for a graduate to be hired in a sustainability role right out of school, say experts, something that job seekers don’t always realize. Typically, a graduate will first be placed in another department of an organization. This helps them gain an understanding of the business and culture, which is critical when implementing sustainability initiatives across multiple business units. It’s quite common, for instance, for CSOs to start in a marketing or strategy-driven role at a firm, and work their way up to a sustainability position.

“Having some time with the company really helps,” said Brodeur, whose own career hasn’t followed a linear path. Hired by Nestlé fresh from his undergraduate studies, he first started out in sales at the company, and then moved into marketing. Fourteen years later, he was placed in his current role. Knowing how the company operates has helped him figure out how best to engage employees and convince them of his sustainability vision, he said.

“I was able to take my strong understanding of the business and the business strategy, and appreciation of culture, and work to drive change, and drive new ways of thinking across the company,” he said.

Photo of young woman with map provided by Yuri Arcurs via Shutterstock.