Leadership lessons for a career in sustainability

Throughout my two-decade long self-guided sustainability and social responsibility career, the two most often questions I get asked from young professionals are: What are the key learnings in the sustainability career and what are the key leadership skills needed for this career? Here are my three learnings that have brightened the career landscape for me and many of my colleagues.      

1. Flexibility to learn and contribute within an organization

All of us in sustainability, social responsibility or ESG know that until the past few years, there has been no defined career advancement path in the evolving profession of sustainability. The vast majority of us came into it with a sense of service, mission or calling, and decided to make sustainability a core value for the organization we served. This passionate commitment, however, can be a barrier to seeing the bigger picture of the company’s mission. Because sustainability expands so broadly across all aspects of an organization’s products and services, the sustainability professional must be a flexible thinker and look for creative solutions. Do not get entangled in the immediate goals of carbon reduction, water conservation, materials management or procurement choices before assessing how they align with the company’s plan. It’s best to first learn what matters most to the company and why, and align all aspects of sustainability to it, so sustainability can truly become a core value for the organization for more successful integration. 

2. Conviction to transfer applied knowledge

If you want to advance in your career and maximize impact, it helps to be flexible across industries to advance your level of responsibility. Interdisciplinary education and research have become very important in academia for sustainability degrees for sustainability solutions. And for the same reasons, the inter-industry application of that knowledge is very important for solving challenges and even leapfrogging to solutions.

3. Openness to listen and educate

Sustainability professionals, especially those of us who started early, know that this work is still relatively new and fast evolving to organizations. There are more questions on methodology, proof points and process than there are standard-setting examples. All industries are still in the early phases of planetary-scale decarbonization. In all the roles I have served, it was always a dual mission of action and education in order to achieve that action. This is hard to do given the urgency around climate action, but the larger the change proposed, the greater the collaboration and business case has to be.  

My perspective on the key leadership skills needed for a successful sustainability career are listed below. With so many resources about leadership, effective execution, power and legacy, much of what I list below may seem obvious. However, looking at these skills through a sustainability lens uncovers what is most effective in our profession. 

Strategic planning and alignment for initiatives

I lead with a vision and conduct strategic planning and program alignment first, (vision, mission, goals, metrics) before implementing projects or finalizing budget. I visualize the outcome,  plan it theoretically — using sustainability subject matter knowledge and analysis — and then consult extensively with all the relevant stakeholders to see if there is short- and long-term viability. Sustainability programs designed this way have the win-win-win quality with business priority value alignment, financial business case and results. With appropriate mission and values alignment, the carbon and environment footprint reduction assignments can become an intrinsic business motivation for the company, as opposed to doing it due to external pressures of evaluation, reporting, ranking or prestige. 

Strength based delegation

I engage team members and staff into the design process to assess all sides of a project, program or initiative. Program design is not just project management and timeline, but understanding how the outcome will serve the goals of several organizations or stakeholders over time. To set it up for success, I wait to launch something until the strength of the leader aligns with the demands of the program. Rushing to cross off a task and assigning it to any willing party without experience and interest can backfire and end up taking more time.

Cross functional training and momentum

As initiatives launch and programs are underway, I bring visibility into the work to create momentum, excitement and mentorship in the process by selective communication and cross functional training. This work is to support the staff and show how their work is valued, but also to create an understanding of the work to highlight the win-win-win for all stakeholders.

Spotlight success, understand failure

In my teams, success is to be shared and visible, and failure should be understood. In a cross functional role with multiple stakeholders and shared resources, it’s particularly important to return the credit where the content and implementation is happening, as it is often also their budget. While success is gratifying, failure is the seed for next success, so I dissect failure with double the enthusiasm with the team, which is often a humorous process that brings out the learning from an otherwise clinical outcome.

Leader as a coach

My management style is to lead by example. My analytical work, interpersonal methods and the results should tell the story, not the tactical project plan. My leadership style is ultimately that of a coach, who brings the best out of a person and aligns their passion and skills to the mission of the project.

In order to deliver positive results that advance a company’s mission, sustainability needs to be a platform for success, collaboration and goodwill. If there are no results, then all the knowledge remains only as potential. A mission of sustainability isn’t enough. We need the reality of action. Those who can ultimately materialize their vision into reality become the leader.

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