The Sustainability Career Track

Celia Spence

So, you want a career in sustainability.  What does that mean, exactly?   Perhaps it means that you want the title of Manager, Director, Vice President of Sustainability for a business entity, wherein you can lead an effort to improve the sustainability of the business, using your skills and knowledge gained in (fill in the blank).

Is your background environment, health and safety (EHS), communications, public relations, marketing, employee relations, operations, risk management, government relations, procurement, investor relations, or something else?  What is the best background for handling the sustainability function in a corporation, and more importantly, what are employers looking for when they are looking to hire a sustainability leader?

As someone who has been in the job market for the past several months, I have encountered many different approaches:

  • Steering committee: Many companies are moving toward a steering committee approach, wherein many different functions are represented on a senior level committee that develops the strategy and oversees the performance.
  • Greenhouse gas emphasis: There seems to be a very strong emphasis on experience and skills with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction as a qualifier for sustainability positions.  Many companies consider GHG reduction to be synonymous with sustainability and don’t understand that there are many other issues to be considered.  In these situations, having LEED certification may be a requirement.
  • Outside talent: More and more companies are creating a leadership position in sustainability and going outside their companies to fill the position.
  • Marketing background: A recruiter at a very prestigious firm recently told me they would not consider someone with an EHS background for sustainability positions, as  they consider EHS to be a technical background, more qualified for dealing with issues related to “parts per million and that sort of thing”; Instead, they look for people with communications backgrounds and experience dealing with NGOs for those positions.

While it’s  important to have someone with strong communications or marketing skills to present the accomplishments of the company in a strong, credible fashion, is having the function led by someone without a technical understanding of the issues a formula for greenwashing mistakes?

Who leads sustainability in your company? For those of you leading sustainability initiatives, what skills or experience do you think are most relevant to your job?


About Celia Spence

Celia Spence is Director of Sustainability for Westinghouse Electric Co.

View all post by Celia Spence »

  1. Joanne Jones

    December 2, 2010

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Celia. This is quite surprising. I also wonder about company structures surrounding sustainability. I’ve seen some very high level positions in charge of sustainability reporting closely to the top. If a company makes that choice to go outside the EHS area, is there a structure supporting sustainability, e.g. finance, HR, legal or something else like marketing?

    I wonder if you could do a survey of NAEM members?

    • Celia Spence

      December 4, 2010

      I’m sure we can put together a quick benchmarking survey of the NAEM membership. Great suggestion!

  2. William D'Alessandro

    December 3, 2010

    Not suprised at all. Your experience reflects the trend I have reported on in Crosslands Bulletin in the past. NAEM’s very own Stephen Evanoff told your conference attendees last year that EHS managers “will always be the ‘pocket protector” type of employees.

    The move away from real expertise to marketing and so-called “communication” skill is a pity, and has not been good for environmental protection or sustainability at corporations in the USA. I really hate to say this, but the profession missed an opportunity in the late 1980s and early 1990s to avoid this outcome.

    Incidentally, how did NAEM’s mid-year career management program go? It was an advanced certificate from Carnegie Mellon University to give EHS managers a stronger grasp of finance and managerial know-how.

    • The Green Tie

      December 10, 2010

      William your comments are astute as always. I wanted to chime in and answer your question about NAEM’s Executive Certificate program with Carnegie Mellon University. For those that aren’t familiar with this program, NAEM partnered with CMU to offer an executive certificate program in business administration designed specifically for EHS managers. In many ways, this program was “way ahead of it’s time.” Offered for 3 years (2003-2005), the course included teaching segments focused on business strategy, communication and leadership, among other topics. It provided an excellent compliment to an individual’s EHS technical skills & competencies from the stand point of being better able to communicate with operations and business managers.

      The course was very well received and many of NAEM’s member companies sent one or several of their EHS people through the program. Unfortunately the initial agreement didn’t include the necessary marketing and outreach to sustain the program beyond NAEM’s members, and it ended after 2005.

      I invite any of the participants in the program to comment, and join in the conversation about the learnings from the course.

  3. jon

    December 3, 2010

    imo…senior level postitions in general (both corporate and gov’t), including Sustainability, go to the best connected person. Such is life. Knowledge and quality of decisions is not the prime consideration.

  4. Tse-Sung Wu

    December 3, 2010

    When I first got involved in what was then called DFE, green design, and industrial ecology in the mid-90s and on, you could find many EHS professionals at conferences such as the IEEE Electronics and Env’t. It seemed as if it was a natural place for an EHS professional move, to move upstream, so to speak.

    However, as I’ve spent quite a few years with an EHS organization of a large, leading tech organization, I find that in the day to day work in compliance with environmental regulations and working with our internal clients to provide general EHS support don’t leave much time for the organizational development that’s needed to get sustainability established within the larger organization.

    I find that for better or worse, addressing and managing compliance creates a perspective which tends to focus an EHS dept’s efforts on end-of-the-pipe. In comparing notes with my colleagues at other companies, I find that EHS tends to focus on day to day operational support. Little time and few opportunities exist to act as a strategic business partner who can help decision makers eliminate sources of waste, environmental impact and other forms of EHS risk from the companies operations and product development process.

    The best I’ve seen of strategic partering in my experience is in the providing EHS support to capital projects: new buildings, significant process changes and the like. However, the impacts that are being managed here are strictly within the compliance realm. i.e., within the borders of the facility, within the jurisdiction of the regulatory agencies; aspects like extended producer responsibility, product end of life, and other more geographically (and temporally) distant effects tend not to be considered. We’ve had a few successes, but they’re more the exception than the rule.

    EHS is a good start to be thinking about sustainability, no doubt. What needs to happen is for management to embrace these ideas and for key designers and decision makers to incorporate broad and long term environmental impact into their goals and decision making.

    Indeed, one good model for developing sustainability within an organization is to start an employee green team to raise knowledge and awareness and change behavior. This creates a norm around sustainability that will hopefully engender a movement that a leader will be able to get behind, as behavioral changes (printing double sided, recycling, composting, etc.) translate into higher level cognitive changes (changing product and process design processes to reduce environmental impact).

    For that, I can see the importance of marketing, the ability to seek and build alliances, find key stakeholders, and bootstrap the change withint the organization if no leadership has yet emerged. If you’re in EHS and have these kinds of skills, there’s no reason you wouldn’t be very successful.

    Thank you for reading,
    Tse-Sung Wu

  5. Alex Pollock

    December 3, 2010

    Thanks Celia for initiating an important dialogue. I wonder how we, the EHS function, could have avoided the missed opportunity that William references? The sustainability programs that I have seen make the most progress are those with valued EHS knowledge and skills in the “engine room” of their companies with a powerful sustainability vision advocated by a respected and seasoned senior executive representing EHS with a strong ally in the CEO. It was apparent to all..inside and outside these companies that top leadership genuinely cared about making a difference. In comparison I found that those programs with more spin than substance had senior leadership assigned to program management that had limited to no passion for the real opportunities that sustainability thinking offers. EHS resources were unfortunately stuck in a “keep us compliant and out of the media” paradigm.

  6. Vicki Peters

    December 7, 2010

    EHS should be the natural choice for companies who want to invoke true change within their organization. Having good knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the business is necessary for effective decision making. If you have no technical knowledge of your product, HVAC, power distribution, equipment and how power companies charge for their services, how can you make effective, large scale changes and avoid expensive mistakes? You can’t.

  7. Elsie Rivera Palabrica

    January 28, 2011

    For highly scrutinized companies (oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, mining) and others that are considered sustainability leaders; senior level sustainability professionals really do need a good grasp of communications/public affairs and marketing. We often say sustainability is about using E and S performance to tangible business advantage – well that requires some one that knows what and how to promote and to whom (not to mention knowing the products frontwards and backwards). These types of companies also have to address some pretty heavy social issues as well (access to healthcare, drug pricing, indigenous populations, hunger if your business is in nutrition) – so a grasp of those issues would be important too.

    EHS is a necessary component but EHS folks often don’t have access to work that provides a more solid understanding of and experience with addressing those other types of sustainability concerns. That said, there is nothing keeping an EHS professional with solid communication skills and a bit of fearlessness to find opportunities to get that relevant experience. A supportive and well connected boss is essential. Make a long term career plan and see if you can get your company’s commitment to make it happen. You could also get involved with other issues outside of work though voluntary nonprofit work – learning, dialoguing, acting. That might lead to opportunities you hadn’t even thought of!

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