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5 Traits Essential for Sustainability Leadership

By 3p Contributor

By Katie Kross and Koji Kitazume, Duke University

Sustainability is a career field that is beginning to mature.  Ten years ago, there were few dedicated jobs with sustainability in the title. Professionals who were passionate about this management issue often found themselves creating their own job descriptions. Those early adopters paved the way for new career paths—and often whole new departments—of sustainability practitioners. Over time, those roles have evolved, with new insights about where and how sustainability fits into a corporate organization and what makes a sustainability executive successful in the role.

We wondered: what skills does today’s sustainability manager require? At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, we have a vested interest in the answer. Duke is one of the few universities to offer a 3-year business and environment graduate joint degree. The students who complete our MBA/Master of Environmental Management program finish armed with a great deal of technical skills, a blue-chip pedigree, and a grand desire to change the world—often in a sustainability role at a corporation, consultancy, or nonprofit. As educators, we wanted to know: are we successfully preparing these graduates for leadership roles in this field? What makes a sustainability leader effective?

To get the answers, we spent some time this summer conducting interviews directly with hiring managers. We had in-depth discussions with 10 companies—ranging from environmental conservation organizations and boutique sustainability consultancies to large sustainability departments at Fortune 50 companies.

Here are five attributes that stood out.

  1. A diverse background. In many MBA career fields, employers like to see a clear corporate-ladder progression on a candidate’s resume.  We were surprised to hear some sustainability employers say they look for the opposite. “One of the markers of a strategic sustainability thinker I look for is a diverse background across sectors, industries, companies, functions, or projects,” said Kirk Myers, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at REI. “It doesn’t have to be a formal job and can be filled out by class projects, or particularly internships, but that portfolio of experience is important.” Another hiring manager told us that candidates who have both nonprofit and for-profit experience on their resumes stand out in her reviews.

  2. Specialization. Even as breadth of experience is valued, so too is depth in a particular area of sustainability. As larger companies have begun to grow their sustainability departments from a staff of one to several, there are increasingly specialized roles available to MBAs entering these departments. Candidates with specific expertise—for instance, public reporting, data analytics, or lifecycle analysis (LCA)—can increasingly find sub-specialized roles within sustainability departments. Valeria Orozco, Manager of Sustainability Services at Accenture told us: “As sustainability matures, people are looking for experts, and you want to be known as that person that can do LCA or Scope 3 [greenhouse gas reporting] or whatever that might be. Because when a request for proposals drops, if we know you’re the expert, we’re going to bring you in.”

  3. Ability to envision solutions. Sustainable solutions often require fundamentally new ways of thinking about existing systems and processes. Truly great sustainability leaders come at challenges thinking about a problem from square one: what is the need I am trying to address? Can it be addressed in a completely different way—as an innovation rather than a trade-off? Many of our respondents cited systems thinking and design thinking as critical skills for sustainability experts, and said they value formal training or coursework in these disciplines. Amidst a rapidly changing world, sustainability executives must be able to envision business solutions in radically new ways.

  4. Ability to lead change. Sustainability hirers also frequently mention the need for “change agents.” That term sounds warm and fuzzy, but underneath, it requires someone who’s tough as nails. Changing a company’s business practices—whether that’s convincing your firm’s operations department to handle purchasing differently or pushing new metrics to supply chain partners—requires persistence, ingenuity and salesmanship. “A successful corporate sustainability professional needs to be comfortable in situations where he or she is not the most popular person in the room, in order to truly influence and change systems and processes,” said Lisa Shpritz, SVP, Environmental Operations Executive at Bank of America. Sustainability practitioners tell us that the ability to influence, even—or especially—where they don’t have direct authority is crucial to their job. Systemic change often becomes a multi-stakeholder engagement, requiring collaboration with supply chain partners, NGOs, government, academia, and sometimes even competitors.

  5. Business acumen. “The ability to understand business models—not just reputational and bottom line efficiency benefits, but also how companies make money off of sustainable products and services—that’s really a big difference, and a lot of people we see don’t have that,” says Truman Semans, Principal at the consultancy GreenOrder. No matter how passionate you are about environmental issues, the key to convincing a business audience is convincing them in business terms. That means a manager going into a sustainability role must have a deep understanding of the company, its competitive context, and its business processes. Want to “sell” sustainability to your stakeholders? Be sure you can sell it in business terms—whether that means financial benefits, operational efficiencies, brand equity, competitive advantage, or employee retention.

As organizations move up the sustainability maturity curve, their issues become increasingly complex. In many firms, the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability solutions has already been captured. The issues that companies are wrestling with now require creative solutions and dramatically different ways of thinking about business. Developing, implementing, and scaling up such solutions often requires multi-stakeholder engagement—whether the issue is on the organization level, supply chain level, industry level, or global level. And businesses are now looking for sustainability approaches that provide opportunities for top-line growth, not just operational cost savings.

In such a complex landscape, there’ll be growing demand for creative problem-solvers. That means continued opportunities for well-rounded MBAs with a passion for sustainability, a business-savvy view of the long term, and the will to lead change.

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. Koji Kitazume is a recent graduate of Duke’s MEM/MBA program.

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