The Changing Face of Sustainability Leadership: Do You Need an Environmental Degree to Enter the Profession?

This is part two of a two-part article on the evolution of sustainability skills, written as part of edie’s corporate leadership month. The first part of the feature, which can be found here, explains why soft skills may be even more important to sustainability professionals than technical expertise.

As experts have pointed out, the 2020s sustainability leader is both a master strategy developer and a unifying force for strategy implementation – and strategy implementation requires influencing. and engage; change management and collaboration; problem solving and course correction.

You are unlikely to find courses in these skills, especially on degree programs such as geography, ecology, geology, or atmospheric science.

Yet, according to IEMA’s Baxter, more than 90% of the organization’s members worldwide are college graduates. And more than 50% of IEMA members have gone beyond earning an undergraduate degree and also have a master’s and/or doctorate.

Baxter notes that a decade ago, many professionals would have sought out multiple environmental-related degrees. More recently, he has noticed a tendency to “mix” environmental degrees with those related to business and finance. According to him, the soft skills provided by business qualifications can be “combined with targeted knowledge and quickly make someone effective enough to drive change” within an organization.

Healy of the ICRS invites us to go back a little further in the history of the profession of sustainable development to answer the question of whether degrees are necessary to enter it. In the 1990s and early 2000s, sustainability or CSR was really in its infancy. Those who entered the profession were then likely to come from other parts of the business – not with climate or nature or resource qualifications, but with “really solid transferable skills” and depth” in a related area, such as supply chain. management or health and safety.

For Healy, this is still a route by which many people, of different generations, enter the field – and she sees it potentially becoming more mainstream, despite an increased supply of specific degrees in environmental management.

“Retraining is absolutely the buzzword right now,” she says. Once future sustainability leaders have shown their work ethic and strong soft skill set, they can learn the more technical aspects of the job — and, according to Healy, companies would do well to help them do that.

Up to a T

Agreeing with this view is CISL’s Friedman, who explains how she strives to equip students with ‘T’ skills. The term, first used internally at McKinsey & Company in the 1980s and popularized in the 1990s, refers to someone who has high skills and expertise in one or a small number of areas, as well as good and broad soft skills that make them strong collaborators across business.

Basically, skills and expertise can be academic or practical.

A word of warning from Friedman, however: “Obviously you need people with deep skills in technical roles like carbon accounting or developing metrics. The world of data is now so complex and you can get so much information about your products, projects and materials. But are your tech workers your agents of change? They are more like an agent of information, which must feed the agent of change.

In other words, although you want a ‘T’ shaped leader leading your sustainability team, they may need to be supported by a team of ‘I’ shaped members. There is early evidence that this is happening; LinkedIn’s Global Green Skills report notes that the number of job postings requiring green skills has increased by 8% per year, on average, over the past five years. And, since 2019, the hiring rate of “green talent” has exceeded the global hiring rate.

It’s clear that earning an environment-related degree or other qualification is probably the quickest route to becoming an ‘I’-shaped professional. As regulatory and stakeholder pressure increases on big business to do their fair share for the climate, degrees are beginning to spring up and evolve in areas such as carbon management.

But you can learn the skills for both T traits in academia, at work, or through different qualifications. IEMA’s Baxter highlighted that the UK’s first sustainability masters-level apprenticeship has recently been launched – this could be an alternative to an undergraduate for those looking to retrain mid-career. And, for those just entering the workforce, says Baxter, learning the environmental practitioner degree is attractive to potential employers and students in terms of funding and the skills imparted.

At edie’s recent sustainability skills seminar, held ahead of the Sustainability Leaders Forumtwo speakers recounted how in recent hiring processes they were ultimately looking for a good record of delivery and strong transferable skills against a specific academic qualification.

Integrated approach

So if anyone could become a ‘T’ shaped professional, could anyone become a sustainability leader?

The debate over whether sustainability professionals should actually work to get laid off has been going on for several years. Those who say “yes” argue that a truly sustainable organization should have embedded the need for science-based action for the planet and net positive societal impact in every department, as well as in governance and culture.

As Healy says, “I think you can make any job greener, and in my opinion, now you should.” It should be noted that LinkedIn’s report reveals that 40% of jobs posted in 2021 had “greening potential”.

Healy continues: “Sustainability is now everyone’s responsibility. We are seeing a move away from small jobs within a single function…Any business making products or offering services needs to think about building sustainability from the foundation, and I think certain aspects, like social value, will start to drive this reflection.

In this situation, everyone would be upgraded and requalified, including the board of directors. Skills changes at the board level will be increasingly necessary as regulations and legislation change, Healy believes.

It is clear that workers would largely support a move to something more like this. A recent Aviva survey found that three-fifths of UK workers would like to move into a job they consider ‘greener’.

But, like Friedman, Healy recognizes that there is always a need for people with different technical specialties and for broader roles. For now, the death of the durability feature is an idea rather than a reality.

And, with the sustainability agenda evolving so rapidly, and with most sustainability teams expected to deliver big results with a small staff, it’s essential to know your specific role and its potential thoroughly. When asked for their top tips for those entering or entering the sustainability profession, all three experts interviewed for this article highlighted the importance of sharpening focus and prioritization.

“Keep your approach fairly strategic and really understand how big global and interconnected issues will impact a specific organization,” advises Baxter.

Similarly, Healy said one of the key skills she would advise all professionals to hone is “ruthless prioritization – being able to listen to noise and filter it out.” She added: “It’s partly the materiality, partly the understanding of what’s going on.” In other words, companies will want to do the most impactful things to reduce their negative impact, but will also likely act in the areas perceived to be most important to staff and customers.

And CISL’s Friedman said companies are looking for someone who can help them “interpret… how their industries and organizations impact – and are impacted by – global issues.”

In summary, whatever your skills and area of ​​interest – and whether you acquired your expertise academically or otherwise – making sure you know exactly what you are good at, what you want to accomplish and why, will make you more strong leader in sustainability.

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