The State of the Profession, 2013

The State of the Profession, 2013

One of the most common statements I’ve heard for years from people whose job within a company is to pursue a sustainability agenda is that “I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve worked myself out of a job.” If that were truly a goal then a career in sustainability -- a lifelong pursuit of the profession -- would be, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

I don’t want to be disingenuous here because I understand what those people are saying. They want to see sustainability embedded in everyone’s job. That’s an admirable goal but as a stated strategy it denies sustainability from being viewed as an easily recognized profession. It makes an aspirational profession more likely something to be featured in “Is This Anything?” on Late Night with David Letterman rather than an important career path.

Birth of a profession

We started to look at what it might mean to have a sustainability career in our 2013 State of the Profession report (download here). For the past few years, we mainly looked at compensation, staffing, budgets and the tasks these professionals undertake. This year we looked more at how they got there and where they’re going.

We asked survey respondents how many years they’ve worked on sustainability issues. As shown in Figure 1 below, 68 percent of vice presidents and 73 percent of directors have logged fewer than six years working on these issues within their present companies.

Figure 1: Number of years working on sustainability issues at your present company.

They couldn’t all have begun their careers in sustainability, so we were curious to find out what these professionals were doing before they got their sustainability jobs. We offered 17 distinct departments to choose from -- and still, 25 percent chose “Other.”

Twenty-one percent moved into sustainability from the EHS organization (or added sustainability to their environmental, health and safety responsibilities) and 10 percent noted that their first job was in sustainability. No other department recorded double-digit transfers — not marketing (8 percent), communications (6 percent), or facilities management (5 percent).

Is there a role model for sustainability executives?

Given that the job of leading sustainability is so new, we’ve engaged in a number of discussions to find out which corporate role can provide a model for the sustainability profession. What’s interesting is that many of the professions we take for granted today are also relatively new when it comes to management structures.

Chief Information Officers (CIOs) evolved as companies became more dependent on technology to both run their business and provide a competitive advantage. The job of the CIO emerged as companies employed greater numbers of programmers and systems analysts who needed to be managed by someone who understood how they worked and, perhaps more importantly, how to talk with them.

Supply chain leadership jobs have grown in a similar snowball-down-the-mountain way. One key difference is that, like sustainability, a supply chain career can start from almost anywhere within a company, as it is not a purist career like finance or sales or marketing. There are generally accepted core competencies for supply chain specialists including planning, procurement, manufacturing and logistics. The challenge in pursuing a supply chain career is to avoid become too much of an expert in one area that it inhibits your promotion to senior management.

In both cases, the leadership job, whether in IT or supply chain, evolved as the number of workers performing specialized functions needed an executive to manage their efforts. This is the complete opposite of how sustainability leadership roles have evolved. They have mostly come about with the appointment of an individual with a mandate from the top either in response to a collection of grassroots initiatives or the CEOs vision for the company.

Is sustainability the new quality or finance?

An analogous function to sustainability is that of quality. According to the Chartered Quality Institute, these professionals use quality management approaches and tools to help organizations improve and to consistently meet customer and stakeholder needs. These professionals work across business functions to drive these improvements using data analysis as well as problem solving and process improvement tools, such as six sigma.

Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) also have jobs that span the company, but come from a very different perspective. In the mid-1970s, around the same time as the quality movement started getting some traction in U.S. companies, the job of the CFO started taking off One of the reasons posited for this is the creation of the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the standardization of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Someone’s hand had to clearly be on the financial tiller to assure compliance with accounting regulations while providing CEOs with a strategic financial perspective for their business.

Both of these roles offer insights into how the CSO role may grow over time -- but there are key differences. Quality managers bring a well-established toolkit to their jobs that they seek to apply across a wide range of issues, but they remain more task-specific. While some chief quality officers exist, the job hasn’t taken off in the same way as the CFO role, which has grown because of the need to respond to increasing regulation and to provide financial analysis for strategic initiatives from product development to facility location. Quality is a choice, whereas finance is law.

Will CSOs grow by attrition?

The role of the chief sustainability officer is still mostly a blank page. Forget that there really isn’t agreement as to what the term sustainability means. The CSO role may be the first time an executive takes on new tasks in order to grow them to a point where they are shed. For example, in our 2011 survey, vice presidents of sustainability identified energy efficiency and facilities management as the third most important area where they were spending their time. In 2012 this has dropped out of their top six to 11th place. The corollary to this is a rise in full-time energy management positions within companies.

CSOs fund pilot projects with the goal of handing them off to another function within the company. In this way, they are the ultimate bench players. CSOs respond to new issues ranging from GHG emissions to toxics and supply chain welfare as they arise. They engage with stakeholders to both hear concerns and communicate their strategies and actions. Sustainability executives are also the ultimate scouts. They look beyond today and into the future to find new opportunities and provide an early warning system.

The role of the CSO is in its infancy. It looks like a lot of other executive roles when they were first established. And like those children, it will be interesting to see what the role of the CSO grows up to look like. Perhaps their goal should not be to work themselves out of a job. Their more important role may be to always work themselves into a new job.

Image by Liviu Ionut Pantelimon via Shutterstock