« Back to Home Page

Sustainability Jobs 101: What Do Sustainability and Porn Have in Common?

3p Contributor | Thursday January 30th, 2014 | 1 Comment

What-do-sustainability-and-porn-have-in-common-2

By Shannon Houde

“I know it when I see it” – so said Mr. Justice Potter Stewart way back in 1964. He was, in fact, talking about the challenges of defining hardcore pornography in a landmark Supreme Court case, but his comment applies equally well to the “hard to define but easy to recognize” paradox of sustainability careers.

After all, they’re notoriously evasive when it comes to pinning down a technical definition: the lexicon itself is riddled with unhelpful buzzwords that mean different things to different people, the talent pool is as heterogeneous as a Greek salad, and after that, well, nobody’s quite sure what sustainability practitioners actually do.

It’s a salient point for jobseekers. In a new, rapidly changing and complex industry, how can you figure out what a potential employer is looking for? And just as importantly, how can you communicate your own competitive advantage as a potential employee?

This past autumn, Net Impact London and I hosted a cafe style workshop with a diverse group of sustainability professionals to delve into these questions and seek consensus on the answers. Today, I’m sharing the four key outcomes of our discussion to help you drill down on the common skills, attitudes and values practitioners share to help you land your own dream sustainability job.

1. Embrace the ambiguity

The uncertainty around who sustainability practitioners are and what they do can actually be a major advantage for those entering the field. There isn’t just one role or one route to a sustainability job, there are many. While this can make it harder to position yourself, it also serves as a useful reminder that to be successful in this field, you’ll need to be flexible and responsive.

What’s more, building on your strengths can help you carve out your own pathway. Sustainability jobs can exist anywhere within an organization; they can be broad and overarching or specific and niche and, increasingly, companies are getting on board with the idea that leaders should be supported, whichever department they sit in. There’s no clear delineation on where the limits of corporate responsibility lie, either – the disentangling of responsibility from accountability is yet another multifaceted debate.

So embrace the ambiguity and figure out how to make it work for you.

2. Be an agent of change

Sustainability does not need to be in your job title for you to be a sustainability practitioner. Rather, “doing” sustainability involves creating change from within the system to move society towards your values. It can be the guiding star in almost any role, and following it takes a lot of passion and belief. But there are other important traits that will help you quantify the benefits of change and translate the story to help organizations realize that the financial bottom line is affected by social and environmental bottom lines too.

Soft skills including the ability to communicate, motivate and facilitate are crucial, while harder skills such as strategic planning, systems thinking, project management and financial analysis to demonstrate viability are also important to provide the evidential basis for change, as shown in this recent ISSP report.

3. Engage with conflict

As a sustainability practitioner, there will often be conflict between your personal values and the values of the organization you’re working for. So what do you do? Well, you could run, but that won’t change anything. Working from the inside requires you to engage with that conflict and try to influence the situation.

This means that you need resilience by the bucket load. How else will you stay true to yourself and maintain your passion in the face of resistance or failure? Perhaps you’ll be constrained by a lack of resources, perhaps your organization’s systems of measurement won’t always support sustainability goals. While many companies have made progress by addressing sustainability issues at the level of policies and values, most are still exploring the ways and means of integrating such factors into management, and only a small minority have begun to integrate corporate responsibility competencies into leadership frameworks. Fewer still have actually begun to address the challenge of developing new performance metrics to explicitly account for social and environmental impacts.

The path to sustainability is uncharted for many companies, and, for sustainability practitioners, dealing with the shortfall between ideal and realistic outcomes is a key challenge. Make sure you’re prepared for it.

4. Seek balance

Change requires both destruction and creation, and finding a meaningful balance between the two is an important task for sustainability professionals. To take an ecological perspective, it’s all about evolution – building on what works and discarding what doesn’t – to offer an improvement on what existed before.

But to ensure that both you and your company come out of the change process better and stronger rather than wrecked and gasping for air, it’s important to manage the process – and that starts with empathy. Take time to listen to stakeholders’ needs and fears and understand the global and local perspectives so that when you have a radical idea, you know how to translate the business case and subtly package it into a simple step that leads the company in a natural direction.

Echoing this is a recent report from Ashridge on the attributes necessary for responsible leadership. It found that openness, honesty and trustworthiness; respect for employees at all levels and commitment to employees’ development, combined with a desire not to let unethical behaviour go unchallenged; a lack of complacency; and a mindset that questions “business as usual” were all “very important” to practicing managers.

Let me know what you think the key traits of a sustainability professional are in the comments section below.

With thanks to my fellow participants in the discussion:
Gwyn Jones, Director at Association of Sustainability Practitioners (ASP), founder of Global Association of Corporate Sustainability Officers (GACSO)
Ben Richards, Head of Sustainability at Radley Yelder
Victoria Moorhouse, Senior Manager (Programmes and Operations) at the Sustainable Restaurant Association

Next month, I’ll be looking at how to identify and access opportunities in sustainability, and how to define success in the short and long term. In the meantime, contact me today for a free 15-minute career coaching session to find out how I can help you target a creative career.

***

Shannon Houde is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and corporate responsibility fields.


▼▼▼      1 Comment     ▼▼▼

Newsletter Signup
  • Dana Schou

    Great article Shannon!