Sustainability Manager Hiring: Look for these Key Traits

by | Sep 30, 2014

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columbia U imageThis two-part series is sponsored by Columbia University. The first article in the series looked at how business leaders and educators view higher education in the fields of environmental and sustainability management. In this article, we share thoughts on what traits businesses should look for in job candidates when hiring in these fields.

Strong communication is one of the most important assets for executives working in the realm of sustainability and environmental management, some educators and business executives agree. “At a management level, skill at interpersonal communications is key,” says Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and consultant to the EPA. “Managers need to have empathy, they need to know how to listen, how to relate to people, how to understand where people are coming from.” When managers communicate well with employees and others, they are more aware of what is going on around them, which makes them more agile and quick on their feet, Cohen says. It helps them “not just deal with the present crisis, but to think ahead to what may be coming.”

Strong communication encompasses the art of listening, another key trait of sustainability managers, says Bob Pojasek, managing partner with RL Expert Group. “Engineers and scientists are incredibly bad listeners and incredibly bad question-askers.” If an EHS professional had to deal with a situation where an employee lost an arm or a finger, “you’d have to go recreate the accident scene. You’d have to be almost a journalist. The skill of interviewing, when you have a problem, is very necessary,” Pojasek says.

Communication tools are also necessary to help managers make a business case for sustainability and to help them embed sustainability into their organization’s overall strategy, says Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University. Higher education can help develop these skills, while providing students with a “vibrant international alumni network of like-minded graduates,” he says.

Another important characteristic is a deep understanding of the science behind sustainability and environmental management. “Everything is based on science and engineering and you need to understand that to see if [a project] is going to work,” says Pojasek.

Valeria Orozco, manager of sustainability services at Accenture, says companies are looking for experts. “… 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,” she is quoted as saying in a TriplePundit article.

These types of skills can be of immense value, not only for sustainability managers, but for business managers across the board. “Operations, environmental health, marketing, and supply chain executives find themselves assigned sustainability as a new objective,” says Crow. “Leaders of innovation, product development, new markets and marketing are increasingly required to develop and implement sustainability plans. CEOs and CFOs are learning that sustainability knowledge and capability are increasingly central to their organization’s success.”

The ability to look at problems from a systems perspective is also a trait that is highly sought after in managers. Katie Kross, managing director of the Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment at Duke University, and Koji Kitazume, a recent graduate of Duke’s MEM/MBA program, conducted in-depth interviews with hiring managers at environmental organizations, consultancies, and large sustainability departments at major companies. Among the traits these managers cited as critical skills for a sustainability manager is systems thinking and design thinking, they wrote in the Triple Pundit article. “…[S]ustainability executives must be able to envision business solutions in radically new ways,” they wrote.

Sustainability problems are multidimensional and interconnected. Dealing with these problems requires knowledge of systems from a macro-perspective — the ability to take into consideration the bigger picture and anticipate what changes will result from particular actions— says Crow. This knowledge must encompass “future thinking,” he says, “and not just about the future but for the future.” Candidates should be able to engage in both forecasting and “backcasting” techniques, so that they can begin with a vision of the most desirable, plausible future and work backwards to determine actions that must be taken today to accomplish that future, he explains.

Columbia’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy teaches the science and systems-based thinking that is so in demand, and provides practical training so that graduates can translate this knowledge into actionable recommendations for decision makers. Dan Bena, senior director of sustainable development for PepsiCo agrees that a deep level of knowledge alone is not enough: “The knowledge that is obtained must be able to be translated from an academic perspective to an applied perspective.”

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