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To Find Your Next Sustainability Job, Stop Looking

3p Contributor | Monday May 19th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Job board screenshotBy Katie Kross

You’ve heard it before: Job searching is about relationship-building. It’s good advice, no matter how many times you hear it—but it’s especially true of the sustainability job search. The fact is, if you’re spending your time looking for sustainability job postings online, you’re going about the job search the wrong way.

Sustainability disciplines—and by that I mean not just corporate sustainability roles, but also corporate social responsibility (CSR), clean tech, impact investing, sustainability consulting, green marketing and a host of other disciplines that make the world a more sustainable place—are evolving at lightning pace. Many of the jobs that will exist a year from now do not even exist today.  Others are largely going to be filled with relationship-based searches—the right person with the right introduction at the right time.  You want to be on the short list for a sustainability job before a job is even posted. (You might even be the one writing the job description!) And no amount of time spent trolling job boards will help you with that.

Here are five tips for a more effective job search.

1. Target organizations, not jobs

The best way to tackle the job search is to start with a list of 30 organizations that interest you most (regardless of whether they currently have an opening or not).  Focus on building relationships within those organizations, meeting key hiring decision-makers, and learning as much as you can about their direction. How and where are they expanding?  What makes someone an ideal fit, culturally, with the organization (or the sustainability department itself)?  What are the challenges they are facing?  The more you learn, the better prepared you’ll be to propose yourself as someone to help tackle those challenges.  Of course, your list will evolve as you research.  Prioritize the organizations that interest you most and drop those that don’t off your list.

2. Network systematically

Looking at your list of 30, start at the top and begin systematically networking your way through the list.  Set a goal of reaching out to six contacts at those organizations a week.  Use LinkedIn and your university’s alumni directory to find contacts, and then email asking for a phone call. Ask your professional colleagues, friends and family members if they can make an introduction to any of the firms. Look for conferences or events where executives from those organizations are speaking, and show up to network.  When you have a conversation with one executive at the organization, ask: “Is there anyone else it would be beneficial for me to speak with?”

3. Nurture the relationships

After you have an interesting conversation with a new contact, don’t drop the ball.  Follow up every three to four weeks.  This follow-up might be as simple as an email thanking them again for a specific piece of advice and letting them know it was useful in your job search.  You might send them an article or recent news story that was particularly relevant to your past conversation.  Or, you can be explicit: “As I continue to network, I feel more committed than ever to work in the impact investing space.  If you hear of any firms that are thinking of expanding their team, I’d appreciate your keeping me in mind.”

4. Narrow your focus

It sounds counterintuitive, but your sustainability job search will actually be more effective if you narrow your search.  When you’re networking and you tell someone, “I’m open to any role that’s related to sustainability,” it is hard for them to imagine what would be a good fit—and consequently, hard for them to recommend other contacts or companies that you should know about.  It also makes you less memorable.  Do you have an industry focus?  A geographic focus?  Do you have expertise in a particular issue (water, energy) or skillset (marketing, finance, lifecycle analysis)? Do you want to work in the private sector or for an NGO?  The more specific you can be, the more useful your networking will be.

5. Remember: You only need one job

Too many job seekers worry, “There just aren’t a lot of sustainability openings.”  The job search is about quality, not quantity.  There could be hundreds of openings and you wouldn’t necessarily have a better chance at landing them.  What’s important is to position yourself as the best candidate for each opening you pursue, not throw your resume in the hat for dozens of openings.  At the end of the day, you only need one job.  That really only requires one job opening—one that you have spent weeks or months cultivating and positioning yourself for, so that when it opens, you are an irresistible candidate.

If you’re looking online for job openings, chances are, you’re already too late.  By the time there is an opening, you should already know about it.  You should have relationships with decision-makers—often, several—within the company.  And you should know enough about the organization and department that you can clearly hone in on exactly what the job requires and why you can add value.

So, close down your browser, and start cultivating those relationships.

Katie Kross is managing director of the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability, which will be released in 2nd edition in July 2014 by Greenleaf Publishing.


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  • Virginia Nicols

    This is one of the VERY BEST articles I’ve seen about conducting a professional job search. (Which means, of course, that I agree with it!) The famous “hidden job market” is nowhere more invisible than in the green space. Think of it this way: you probably won’t be finding a job, you’ll be creating one!