sustainability professionalsThe Sustainability Professional: 2010 Competency Survey Report provides insights into what sustainability professionals see as important skills needed and what are their most critical challenges.

by Tracey de Morsella, Green Economy Post

Late last week, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) published The Sustainability Professional: 2010 Competency Survey Report. The study, conducted over a 9 month period, sought to answer the question, “What should a sustainability professional know how to do?” A survey tool was administered to nearly 400 sustainability professionals working in the field. This report summarizes the competencies identified as being most critical to the successful performance of professionals working in the field of sustainability.

With so many looking to break into the sustainability, many interested will likely be able to use the study to gain a clearer understanding of what sustainability professionals are called upon to know and do. It could also prove to be a useful resource for those working in sustainability training and education, as well as employers seeking to define sustainability job descriptions.

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The Respondent Profile

Most of the respondents work in North America (79%), with 53 % being male. This group is highly educated with 93% having at least a bachelor’s degree, 60% having a master’s degree, 10% having doctorates and 19% having completed a sustainability certificate. This includes 20% that are currently pursuing some sort of training.

The majority (63%) has three or more years of paid work experience in the field, and 27% have 10 or more years. Consultant make up 36% of the group and 56% work in organizations with fewer than 100 employees. Compensation for 47% of U.S. residents was between $50,000 and $99,999 per year.

What are The Most Important Challenges That Sustainability Professionals Face?

The top two most important issue facing their organizations (or their clients’ organizations) were: 1) promoting an understanding of the value of sustainability (34%), and 2) dealing with climate change and related energy needs (29%).

Gaining the support of management and customers, proving fiscal viability and attracting funding were most often cited as the other very important issues they faced. Also included at the top of the list of competencies needed were change management—dealing with changing business priorities, overcoming resistance to change, redesigning products and services to be more sustainable, and ensuring environmental compliance. Social responsibility performances tended to be less important than environmental concerns.

North American Sustainability Professionals Stress Different Important Core Competencies than Their Counterparts

The study revealed that North American sustainability professionals are more focused on establishing and managing priorities and facilitating or training groups as compared to their non-North American counterparts. North Americans also cite vendor management and financial analysis -specifically ROI (47%), and systems thinking (59%) were more important as more important. Those outside North America were more concerned than North Americans with policy expertise and risk assessment.

Organization Size Impacted Important Core Competencies Cited

Larger organizations seem to value internal communication skills mores as they see it as a stumbling block for implementing sustainability programs. Whereas, smaller organizations are more concerned with external stakeholders and influencing change outside the organization. Sustainability accounting and reporting was cited as extremely important no matter what the size of the organization.

The Impact of Organization Structure on Needed Competencies

The need to develop the business case for sustainability was considered more critical by smaller organizations. Consultants were more concerned with developing business cases and getting buy-in from top management, and benchmarking. Funding for individual initiatives was somewhat more important to consultants and those in government, education and nonprofits than to those in manufacturing/services Those working in non-consulting organizations tended to be more concerned than consultants with educating customers and with staying current with scientific findings.

Innovation is also seen as much more important to consultants and those in manufacturing as not-for-profits (including government and education.) Those working in manufacturing/ services were more likely than those in other industries to think designing or redesigning product and service offerings is very important. Financial analysis/ROI, auditing (GHG, sustainability) and risk assessment were cited as very important by all types of organizations.

A Look at the Soft Skills Needed

Respondents cited soft skills as much more important than hard skills. Respondents said “soft” skills will continue to be needed in the future because they are necessary for bringing about transformational change. The soft skills most often cited as needed for success as a sustainability professional are communication skills (written & verbal). The most critical soft skills for sustainability professionals surveyed include communication with internal and external stakeholders, problem solving and inspiring and motivating others.

Non-consultants felt more strongly than consultants about the importance of networking and
influencing change. Several skills were cited as most important to those in government, education and non-profits: those included flexibility or adaptability, inspiring and motivating others communication with internal stakeholders, and consensus building.

Change Management is a Key Theme

Sustainability professionals across all organization sizes and types cited change management is important. As a result, “soft” skills such as communication, facilitation, consensus building and networking are deemed of especially high value by the group as a whole. Demonstrating financial viability and return on investment are considered by respondents to be important enablers of change.

A Look at the Hard Skills Needed

Other skills were mentioned less often by the group as a whole. Respondents said most hard skills will continue to be needed in the future because they are necessary for enabling a strategic approach, competing in a business climate, are fundamental to change, and/or allow performance tracking. The most important hard skills cited were strategic planning, project management and systems thinking. Scientific expertise and sustainability accounting/ reporting tended to be more important to larger organizations than to smaller ones.

Required Technical Skills are More Industry Specific

With the exception of planning and project management, many hard skills needed seem to vary in importance by industry. The one exception to this rule is in the area of greenhouse gas auditing and action planning. The survey results indicate that organizations in all sectors will need help in managing, mitigating and monitoring greenhouse gases.

A Look Down The Road

Looking ahead five years, researchers found that soft skills are considered important for change and transformation purposes, whether applied inside the organization or in dealings with suppliers and partners. Promoting understanding was expected to decrease in importance in five years, while climate and energy issues were expected to increase in importance in five years.

© 2010, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine,, Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine,, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.

  • Tommy C. Reed

    Well, all of these skills can only be achieved through a proper education. At least, there will be a lot of chances that the skill that they could learn is not a plain skill only but with have some theoretical matters that could support their decision.