The soft skills that make for success in sustainability
There isn’t much Ryanne Waters isn’t qualified to do.
Now senior communications specialist for freshwater and food at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) she has built up experience across stakeholder engagement, content curation, design and production, analysis and storytelling, zero waste events, sustainable sourcing — the list goes on.
She’s also certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as a LEED Green Associate and TRUE Advisor, and sits on the steering committee of DC EcoWomen, a networking organization for environmental professionals in the Washington, D.C., area. Here, Waters talks the challenges of working at a global NGO and the soft skills that serve her better than any technical degree would.
Shannon Houde: You joined WWF in April 2021 after more than four years at the U.S. Green Building Council. What led to you making that switch?
Ryanne Waters: I was feeling a little bit stagnant in my role working in event sustainability after the pandemic hit. I was looking for something else, but had really no idea what I wanted, what I could do or what my experience could translate into. I didn’t have that sort of singlemindedness of knowing what it was that I wanted to achieve. Initially I was thinking my experience in sustainable events could translate to a corporate sustainability role in the hospitality industry, but that sector was suffering from impacts of the pandemic and many of my contacts were furloughed. So, I had to pivot and shift into a different strategy. That’s where I thought, “Let’s look at an NGO that works with corporates,” and I happened upon this job posting at WWF.
Houde: So, tell us a little bit about how it is to be working for a global nonprofit. Does it live up to your expectations?
Waters: For me,WWF was the dream organization to be involved with ever since I was very, very young. And I think in a lot of ways it has lived up to expectations. I get to work on such big, important and cool issues, and I really feel like the work I am doing is important and brings me purpose. WWF attracts such amazing talent, so I also get to work with some of the most amazing, intelligent and inspiring people. Something that I was not necessarily anticipating was how much of an adjustment it was for me personally to move to a larger organization, particularly when we were still working entirely remotely. My prior experience has been in much smaller nonprofits, which had 400 employees or less. WWF has thousands of employees and hundreds of offices all over the world. Even within just the U.S., there’s so many different teams and people. So, trying to determine how to navigate all that and adjust to a much larger organization was personally challenging for me. But I think that working for a large nonprofit organization is also really, really rewarding. Because the scale and scope of our work is so big, there is a lot of impact and you do get to work with so many different people, internally and externally, who have just completely nuanced perspectives, so you are constantly learning something new.
Houde: In addition to the scale of the organization, what are some of the other challenges that you’ve encountered since you took on the role?
Waters: WWF works on a myriad of topics, from forests, to oceans, to freshwater, to wildlife, to food — which I work on — and they all intersect in various ways. That means there’s always somebody else working on a similar area so all that stakeholder engagement and consensus building can be challenging.
The other challenge is that a lot of the topics we work on are very nuanced and sometimes can be very technical. In communications, sometimes you have to get your message across in just a sound bite or two sentences or a tweet, and there’s not always room for the nuance. So you have to be able to be concise, and really know what the goal is of what you’re trying to communicate and to who in order to not get too into the weeds.
Houde: With that in mind, what is it that your day to day looks like?
Waters: My elevator pitch is that I do strategic communications at WWF on their Freshwater and Food Team. What that means is that I get people to care about and take action on things that will help to protect and preserve our critical freshwater ecosystems and landscapes, and drive transformation towards more resilient and regenerative food systems.
But what that looks like day to day is a lot of different things. One day I could be working on a draft communication strategy for our work on seaweed farming. On another, I could be giving feedback to an illustrator on how to make their sketch about regenerative food systems more technically accurate or to convey our message more strongly. I could be brainstorming ideas for comms activation at a [United Nations] summit with a corporate partner or writing an op ed for one of our execs about the interconnections between food production, biodiversity, public health and climate change.
You have to be able to be concise, and really know what the goal is of what you’re trying to communicate and to who in order to not get too into the weeds.
I don’t have any sort of technical, environmental or conservation background. I studied political science and international relations, and my background is in advocacy, communications and events. But I’ve always been super interested in food systems, and the connectivity and circularity that our natural environment already has and how to kind of work within that.
Houde: You’ve mentioned you don’t have a technical background. How have you been able to navigate this role without those concrete technical skills?
Waters: It definitely helped that I worked at different conservation organizations previously. Food & Water Watch is a consumer advocacy-focused nonprofit specifically working on food and water issues. And then, of course, with the U.S. Green Building Council I had access to several relevant certifications. The LEED Green Associate Certification is one that I have, which I find to be very useful. It has a really, really great overview of what I think has transformed into the modern-day CSR role. I also have a TRUE certification, which is another one from U.S. Green Building Council that is specifically on zero waste. That again was a very useful overview in terms of the basics of what is zero waste and how you achieve it.
I will say that the certifications were helpful in helping me to gain that basic technical understanding, so I can better translate complex issues to different audiences. But for my specific role, there is not a predetermined or technical education or background. Some of the soft skills you need, though, are the confidence and gravitas to be able to work alongside technical experts who may have advanced degrees or even Ph.D.s in conservation and to be able to think strategically with them about how you can effectively communicate their message to the right people, through the right medium, without getting intimidated by their education and years of experience. This is where mindfulness really helped me push past imposter syndrome and helped me remember not to compare myself to others, and that the unique perspective and experience I bring is inherently valuable in the conservation and sustainability world.
The other thing that really helped me was networking and just reaching out to people that had job titles that I thought that I would be interested in and wanting to learn more about them and what skills they had. I’ve also volunteered for sort of various projects that helped me get more experience.
Houde: I’m really curious to hear more about the interview process that that you went through. What types of questions did you ask, for example?
Waters: WWF is a very large matrixed organization, as I mentioned, so they have a pretty standardized process where you put your application through a portal, you do a recruiter screening and then, depending on the position and the team, you’ll have a series of interviews. For me it was an interview with my direct manager and then an interview with the [senior vice president] of our department.
A lot of the questions that were important to me were around not being regarded as a service provider. In communications specifically, in my experience, you can be seen as a service provider — it’s ‘hey, I need you to write this copy’ or ‘hey, I need you to put this tweet out’ — where you have no say in the strategy or reasons behind why this is the tactic. That was something that happened to me in both communications and events. So it was important to me to find out in the interview process, how the communications role would be regarded on the team. What sort of level of influence am I going to have in the communications strategy that we’re putting together? Or am I just an implementer of someone else’s vision?
The other really important factor to me was to have autonomy and know there was an inherent trust from my manager. But I learned after I started that at a larger organization, you have to have trust in your employees because there is so much going on that you just can’t be involved in everything.
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their “day in the life” involves.