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Communication is the #1 Skill for Sustainability Professionals

Leslie Back | Wednesday August 11th, 2010 | 0 Comments

The sustainability profession is in development. Spurred by environmental necessity and societal imbalances, a new field is emerging. Recognizing the need to bring clarity and cohesion to this growing concern, our friends at the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), formed in 2008, released a comprehensive, survey-based report highlighting the primary competencies needed by sustainability professionals. While all of the reported skills are important, good communication is without a doubt the most vital ability.

Why communication? Because this skill is critical to meet the industry’s #1 challenge: articulating the value of sustainability. No matter if the conversation is with consultants or in-house CSR professionals, the complaint is the same: building the business case for sustainability and establishing buy-in from colleagues is a difficult, uphill battle. Of course, this is only a reflection of the general societal misunderstanding of sustainability. Even today, despite all the improvements and steps forward, I get a “deer in the headlights” look when I try to explain why I am pursuing a Sustainable MBA. Folks just don’t know what a Sustainable MBA is!

Of course, this lack of understanding is improving and will continue to do so. Indeed, the ISSP survey concluded that this challenge, promoting understanding, will decrease in the next five years where other challenges, such as dealing with climate change issues, will increase in importance.  The hard skills cited in the report will help to meet such challenges. These include systems thinking, project management and strategic planning. More specifically, scientific expertise and knowledge of sustainability reporting were cited as important hard skills, especially for large organizations. Note that financial analysis and ROI was most important to consultants and those in the manufacturing and service sectors.

It seems that the ISSP survey respondents agree with my assessment that the primary “soft skill”, communication, is of most concern. In fact, ISSP reported that soft “…skills will continue to be needed in the future because they are necessary for bringing about transformational change”.

This conclusion, that communication is one of, if not the most important skill for sustainability professionals is mirrored in other studies as well. In 2008, Hudson Gain, a New York based consulting firm, interviewed 61 executives from several corporations in an effort to determine the needed characteristics for a sustainability officer. According to Hudson, virtually every interviewee placed a high importance on communication. The report noted however, that the communication efforts should be substantial, not just talk. There should always be something real and tangible to say.

Further, the Canada based group, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), published an extensive 2007 report on becoming a leader in sustainability. Study respondents, who were interns or part of the IISD RS team, reported communications skills as the most important with figures between 55-60% respectively.

At the end of the day, a sustainability professional needs to know just about everything. That is what my research has led me to believe (good thing I embrace lifelong learning). But, no matter the discipline or specific field, no matter if the subject matter is full cost accounting, greenhouse gas mitigation or ecosystem valuation, communication is key. You have to know how to articulate your position, state your case and translate the value of your efforts to all stakeholders. All steps towards the greater green are for naught if they are not well communicated. So, speak up, write well and let us hear you. We are listening.


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