Kathrin Winkler gives us insight into why she does not feel that a sustainable future will be best served by creating armies of people who are in “sustainability jobs.” She also does she think there will be that many of them.
To have a sustainable future, people don’t need to have a career in sustainability. Instead, the sustainability quality should be imparted within the values of the company
Lately, I find myself being asked frequently about “careers in sustainability”. Sometimes it’s by reporters, as in this interview, but most often it’s by students or people seeking a change of professional direction. The most common questions are about how to get a “sustainability job” and whether (or where) to major in “sustainability”.
I have a problem with that. A few of them, actually.
Which sounds awfully mean-spirited, given that I have a “sustainability job”. And yes, I think it’s one of the best jobs going. Believe me, I don’t begrudge anyone else the same opportunity. But I don’t believe that a sustainable future for our society will be best served by creating armies of people who are in “sustainability jobs”. Nor do I think there will be that many of them. Here’s why.
The people who will drive change are those who will transform business models, technology, engineering, and processes to evolve toward an environmentally and socially sustainable society. As CSO, I may be championing removal of hazardous substances, but it’s the technical supply chain team at EMC who have been working with peers, academia, and suppliers to find replacements for PVC in cable sheathing, lead in solder, and brominated flame retardants in printed circuit boards. Our packaging engineer eliminated polystyrene and designed collapsible crates. The global real estate team is responsible for our rainwater capture, water treatment plant, high-bay lighting, and countless other energy-saving initiatives. Our hardware engineers developed adaptive cooling techniques, and together with software designers, gave us disk spin-down and solid state disks. Procurement selected high-yield paper. Need I go on?
I am in an influence job. I am trying to educate, incite (and incent), nudge, set direction. Pay attention to emerging issues and engage those that are needed to address them. Recognize new opportunities and excite those that can leverage them. Then get the heck out of the way.
Do you want to change the world? Go become a material scientist, engineer, financial expert. Find a solution to energy storage. Get Wall St to change the short-termism that plagues private industry and makes long-term investment in sustainability so challenging. Bring your passion, systems thinking, and world view together with another skill set or expertise and GO CHANGE THE WORLD!
Ask the Expert
I’m not the right one to ask. I didn’t plan to be in this job – I didn’t even know it existed until a couple of years ago. In fact, for the most part, it didn’t. I got here through a combination of good timing, opportunism, passion, business experience, and some professional success (at least by my definition).
We are in a period of non-linear change. What exists as a job now didn’t 10 years ago and may not 10 years from now. My best advice? Develop transferrable skills, be resilient, be good at whatever you do, and keep your eyes open for new opportunities to bring sustainability into a discipline that needs it.
Consider the odds
Some weeks I get a question every single day about how to have a career in sustainability. If I look at “pure sustainability jobs” (assuming there is such a thing) – there are consultants, academicians, members of company sustainability teams, and Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO’s) or some equivalent. For every person I know in one of those jobs, I probably get 10 requests from people who want one. And that’s just me.
Riding the Wave
It’s unfortunate but true that in tough financial times, some companies go right to the non-revenue organizations to streamline the company. Thankfully, EMC didn’t do that. But there are plenty of examples of companies who did. It also happens when companies merge.
Having other skills is better for the peace of mind, and for the wallet. More to the point, people who are in functional roles, applying principles of sustainability, are simply less vulnerable.
While I am in some sense a “sustainability professional”, that has not been my career. My career has been in high tech. With 20/20 hindsight, it’s probably more accurate to say that I have been a professional change agent, with a focus on high tech.
Say you get a job in sustainability out of the chute. Some people do. You will develop some great skills. But will you learn the business as well as if you were in a front-line job? Will you get a grasp of the financials the way you would in the back office? Will you understand the market and opportunities the way people in front of customers or developing business strategy do? Will you appreciate the challenges in the supply chain if you haven’t been there? What will be the basis of your bona fides for influencing others to change? If sustainability is part of business strategy – and I believe deeply that it is – it’s important to understand the whole business picture.
Most of the CSO’s I know came from within. Granted, in the past there was nowhere else for them to come from. And there is no question that successful CSOs are being offered new opportunities; having demonstrated leadership in one company, several have been asked to help guide another on its journey. Tod Arbogast, for example, went from Dell to Avon and Dave Stangis from Intel to Campbell’s Soup. Both of them brought influence, leadership, operational skills and a experience in setting strategy and driving change. Will this happen to people who’ve never done anything else? I don’t know. I wouldn’t count on it.
The CSO Imperative
I think I shocked that reporter when I said I wasn’t convinced that every company needs a CSO. But I’m not. I think of “sustainability” like “quality” – it needs to be interjected into everything we do by making it part of the value system of the company. In some sense, our job is to eliminate our jobs.
Do I really think that we’ll put ourselves out of a job in the near future? Not really. The space is moving too rapidly not to have someone tracking issues, establishing priorities, educating the organization, managing stakeholder engagement programs and – perhaps most importantly – harvesting applicable ideas and best practices from the workforce and from other companies.
Someone needs to decide what the next destination on the journey should be. But does it have to be in the form of a “CSO”? That depends on company size, culture, organizational framework, management style, and where they are in their own evolution.
By all means, aspire to be a CSO. Take a “sustainability minor” in school. Plan to change the world. We need that passion, that determination. We need it in our engineers, our program managers, our scientists, our accountants, our business leaders, even our sales people. We need it in you. Combine that resolution, courage, and appreciation of the interconnectedness of our world with an insider’s knowledge and you can move mountains. Or better yet, stop others from moving them.
Editor’s Note: This seems to be a subject that is being hotly debated. For instance, Miranda Ballantine, the Director for sustainability with Walmart has a different view. She feels that sustainability as a departmental function is here to stay. This is what she had to say at the recent Annual Net Impact Conference, “I used to think that it would one day go away [because it would be so instrumentally embedded across companies]. Now I see it differently. If everyone is managing money, we still have finance departments. If we’re all taking care of regulations, we still have legal departments. So why would we do away with the sustainability department?” she said, adding, “There will always be technical aspects of sustainability that will require a department. Does everyone need to an expert? No. But we will need a team responsible for embedding CSR in everyone’s job.”
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© 2010, Kathrin Winkler. All rights reserved. Do not republish.