Every fall, first-year students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability find themselves in a “sustainability consulting boot camp.” The two-semester course, called NYCLab, is a globally unique program where students work in small teams solving sustainability challenges for real world businesses.
Clients have included big companies like Jet Blue, Clif Bar, Siemens, Nasdaq, Con Edison, UBS and Unilever, but also start-ups and large non-profits. The projects range across the map, from operations to finance, and marketing to employee engagement.
The course is taught, and the projects are all closely overseen by Laura Gitman, the Chief Operating Officer of the biggest and oldest sustainability consulting firm in the world, BSR. Under Gitman’s careful guidance, and despite the fact that the teams have limited consulting experience going in, client satisfaction since the start of the program has been fantastic. Gitman says that “the students learn the process of consulting in real-time, from scoping a project and conducting research through presenting the final recommendations in person to the client. After a 9 month project, they have covered all the basics."
The real point here is this: there is no magic to sustainability consulting. With strong mentoring, first year MBA students, with their skills and sustainability understanding, and with the passion to solve challenging environmental and social problems, can provide a real value add to companies. So what is this business called sustainability consulting? And what skills are needed to get a job doing it?
Just twenty years ago, business sustainability was a radical new idea, introduced to the world by pioneers like Hunter Lovins, Amory Lovins, and Paul Hawken through books like Natural Capitalism. Since then, the core idea—that solving environmental and social problems through intelligent, often radical redesign could be central to profitable business strategy—has become accepted as mainstream. Even more recently, social and environmental “purpose” has been widely championed by many CEO’s, including BlackRock’s Larry Fink, as critical to business success.
Given this new corporate focus, how do managers actually “manage for mission,” and embed sustainability into the core of business strategy? This is a real challenge, as most of today’s business leaders—from mid-level to the C-suite—were trained in traditional MBA, single-bottom line thinking: to maximize the share-price of the company stock.
The managerial response to demands from CEO’s of large corporations has been to create dedicated teams of sustainability professionals. These folks are tasked both with identifying and implementing profitable sustainability opportunities, and spreading sustainability thinking across the organization. These professionals often need help with putting into place best practices, and so turn to sustainability consultants. At the same time, companies that don’t yet have professionals on staff also work with consultants to begin to bring a focus on environmental or social mission into their businesses.
Hunter Lovins, now a Professor at Bard’s MBA, says that incremental measures are no longer sufficient in a time of global crisis. She notes that “outside consultants legitimize the work of internal staff, and can make the case for radical innovation. They can push a company to take steps that may be unpopular but that make solid business sense, and that address the fundamental roots of environmental and social challenges.”
In terms of implementation, sustainability consulting is closely related to the more generic practice of management consulting. Some Bard graduates work in traditional consulting firms and bring a sustainability lens to bear on their projects. Others work in companies that are explicitly focused on sustainability consulting. Even there, in the day-to-day, the work brings to bear much of the standard tool-box employed by management consultants in other fields.
The classic sustainability consulting job focuses on reducing environmental impact: carbon emissions, fresh water consumption, toxic pollution. These tend to be operations focused, with the intent of reducing both waste and cost. But as sustainability thinking has matured, there is an increasing recognition that sustainability advantage can be gained from all parts of the business: by sparking innovation; increasing employee engagement and productivity; creating better accounting controls; lowering the cost of finance; attracting and retaining consumer loyalty; lowering supply chain risk; and reducing legal exposure. Lovins calls these diverse advantages of sustainability implementation the “integrated bottom line”.
What are employers looking for in entry-level consultants? March, Souza and Green offer these thoughts:
The group also offered advice for folks who have been out of school for a year of a few years who would like to get into the field:
Just as important as the coursework, however, are the many ways in which the Bard MBA provides hands-on consulting opportunities for students. Real world experiences are critical to apply the tools learned in the courses, gain experience and build student resumes.
Bard’s location in NYC, home to many sustainability consulting firms, provides a final advantage. Bard’s faculty are also mostly sustainability practitioners themselves, several with their own consulting firms. Students are exposed to a constant flow of guest lectures working in and around consulting, and in fact, many of the students gain additional experience working with MBA faculty on their own projects.
At the end of the day, finding work as a sustainability consultant requires (1) learning both sustainability knowledge and best-practice management consulting skills, while also (2) gaining real world experience putting that knowledge to work. It can be a fascinating road leading to a meaningful career, each year helping dozens of companies and non-profit organizations along their sustainability journeys.
A longer version of this article, with examples of students who have ventured into sustainability consulting, is on the Bard Graduate Programs in Sustainability program site.
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