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The Changing Tides of Sustainability Talent: It’s Not About Being Indiana Jones

January 22, 2013

A career in corporate social responsibility or sustainability can be thrilling. It seems nothing ever stays the same. Sure, many of the leaders from ten years ago are still blazing trails. But as more companies adopt sustainability policies, the shifting tides in the field change the skills and knowledge required.

Ellen Weinreb of the Weinreb Group.

Ellen Weinreb of the Weinreb Group.

To gain some perspective on the evolving needs of sustainability talent, I sat down with Ellen Weinreb, who runs an executive search firm called the Weinreb Group with a specialty in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. As far as I know, there is no greater expert in sustainability talent recruitment. She has seen the field evolve since starting her career in sustainability in 1996 while in business school at Yale and has gained notable clients like Walmart, Patagonia, Levi Strauss & Co., and Nestle Waters. In addition, I’ve had the honor of seeing her in action as we collaborate on a research project due out later in the year.

In this interview, she describes the needs of sustainability leaders, identifies where the pockets of job growth in the field may be in the future, and dispels a great myth about being a sustainability professional.

Q: You’ve been involved in sustainability for a long time. How have you seen the field change over the years, particularly relating to who’s hiring, at what levels, and what your clients are asking for in their searches?

The good news is that the sustainably field is expanding. The job market ebbs and flows in tandem with the economy. When times are bad and companies are laying off parts of the workforce, the sustainability program can be seen as non-essential business in the eyes of the people making the cuts. Right now, however, things are definitely on the uptick.

I’ve observed a progression of the sustainability position.  For example, in 2008/2009 during the downturn, many companies replaced senior level sustainability professionals with more junior professionals at half the salary. The result was that the junior person was doing the work of many staff.  In 2010/2011 I saw many heads of sustainability receive the budget to add a deputy to her team.

What I’m seeing now, big companies are hiring again, in general, at a more senior level.   Weinreb Group conducted a study of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) called “CSO Back Story.” We identified 29 individuals with that exact title working for US publicly traded companies. Next month we will publish an update of that list which shows a growth of CSOs. On average the CSO is 2 steps away from the CEO.

Over the last couple of years, I also see the hiring of support staff, particularly around reducing energy, reducing waste, and water conservation. But the number one subfield, if you will, is energy; whether it’s energy reduction, shifting to renewables, or taking advantage of government subsidies.

Q: How have the required skills changed over the past decade or so?

Weinreb Group published a report last year with VOX Global and the Net Impact Chapter at UC-Berkeley entitled “Selling Sustainability from the Inside” which addresses how a CSO can move the sustainability dial forward within their company.  We found that interpersonal skills trumps all, meaning that ideas, projects and initiatives need to be sold to each internal stakeholder.

Interestingly, we found that using the word “sustainability” was like a shunned “S-word.”  The language that works is not the “S-word” but rather the language of the person to whom you are selling.  Beth Shiroishi, who is Vice President of Sustainability and Philanthropy at AT&T, summed it up best. She said that CSOs need to be “corporate chameleons.”

Similarly, “CSO Backstory” found that corporate sustainability leaders emphasized the skill of interpreting external factors and translating them internally to create value for the business via saving money, creating new products, enhancing brand value, or perhaps reducing risk.

Keep in mind, on average the CSO had worked at their company for 14 years at the time that they were named CSO. As a result, they knew the internal workings of all the functions of the company; they are tapped into the internal stakeholder dynamic and they know best what creates value in their company.

Q: What about geography?Any insights on where those sustainability positions are based and why?

We published a study, “CSR Jobs Report”, addressing the number of sustainability job postings between the years 2004 and 2009. While the data is dated, the geographical findings are not.  San Francisco is clearly the front-runner with regard to jobs at 24% of all postings; New York came second at 10%.   The irony is that rarely are my searches in San Francisco even though I am based here. A lot of my searches are in the South where the talent is not concentrated in any one place.

There is a correlation to geography and industry.  The tech industry is in the Bay Area, so are the sustainable tech jobs and likewise for New York with financial services and communications agencies.

Why does a company embark along a sustainability path?  Sure, it is the right thing to do but it can also be a competitive advantage.

I can be a company’s first point of contact when they are just entering into this space. The first thing they do is to hire a sustainability leader. I ask them why they are embarking on this sustainability journey. Their response is often expressed in terms of the competition. They want to be a leader, they see it as a competitive advantage, their competitors are doing it, or they don’t want to get too far behind the competition.

And then the entire industry moves. For example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in the apparel industry can create an entire movement with the Higg Index.

Q: Where have you seen the field not change?

This field evolves. Changes are inevitable. Reporting has evolved and is still important and the understanding of materiality has evolved.

The biggest overall change is the shift in focus from social to environmental. Before social was the larger driver and that’s why the apparel, footwear, and toy industries lead the way. And now with environmental sustainability being the stronger driver, you see more technical positions with environmental impacts such as energy/carbon, waste, water, resource planning/use and life cycle analysis.

Q: What is driving the shift from social to environmental?

Business risks have shifted. For example, one fairly recent business risk was the disruption as the result of Superstorm Sandy. Climate change causes severe changes in weather and this is not just an environmental issue but also one that has an effect on business.  Other risks include the increasing cost of energy and therefore companies have an increased incentive to reduce their energy spend.

Public policies are also big drivers. When Obama entered office, there was a huge number of new jobs at the Department of Energy.  DOE became the new “it” department to be in, not Department of Labor or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Q: I hear a lot of talk about the Chief Sustainability Officer title. Do you think the CSO title is going to stick?

In the report that we did last year, we identified 29 individuals in the country that had exactly the Chief Sustainability Officer title. My predication was that over time  there would be a lot more coming to the surface. What I’ve found, however, is that there’s a resistance to that title.

So for example, often times a client will come to me and ask for a suggestion for a title, assuming they are hiring their first CSO. I always suggest the CSO title, and their response is, “Oh no, that wouldn’t be appropriate at our company.” The Chief title is often not taken lightly. It is reserved for veterans in the business with traditional trajectories.

There is also a dynamic where a company uses the title externally but it is not really represented internally at that company. To truly be a CSO, the executive should report directly to the CEO.

Q: Lastly, are there any continuing myths about being a sustainability professional?

Sustainability professionals are constantly creating change, moving uphill, selling. It’s a lot of hard work. The myth is that there’s this picture of an Indiana Jones character that is breaking forth, forging new frontiers, moving at high speeds, overcoming all obstacles, and is invincible. But that is not the reality.

Q: Any advice for job seekers out there? Any resources you would recommend?

A good resource is “Ellen’s List.” Every day we post one or two jobs that cross our desk onto Facebook, Twitter, and our web site. Also there are coaches out there. One of them that I could recommend is Shannon Houde of Walk of Life. Also, Mrim Boulta and Mark Albion of More Than Money Careers developed an online module that supports career decision-making and how to present yourself to a potential employer.  The last piece of advice is to explore internally what “impact” means to you and then pursue a career that is impactful.


Indeed, as Ellen Weinreb points out, we don’t get to use whips, wear iconic leather hats, and dodge large boulders barreling our way, as Indiana Jones famously did. But if you work hard in this field, which is changing so rapidly, you get to create your own adventure.

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