The changing face of sustainability leadership: Do you need an environmental degree to enter the profession?

In 2022, sustainability leaders need to have honed their soft skills like communication and collaboration, engaging and mobilising all manner of internal and external stakeholders. So, do you still need an environment-related degree to become a sustainability professional?

The changing face of sustainability leadership: Do you need an environmental degree to enter the profession?

This is the second part of a two-part feature on the evolution of sustainability skills, written as part of edie’s Business Leadership Month. The first part of the feature, which can be found here, outlines why soft skills may be even more important for sustainability professionals than technical expertise.

As the experts have outlined, the sustainability leader of the 2020s is both a master strategy developer and a unifying force for strategy delivery – and strategy delivery necessitates influencing and engaging; change management and collaboration; problem-solving and course-correcting.

It is unlikely that you would find classes on these skills, specifically, on the syllabus for degrees like geography, ecology, geology or atmospheric science.

Yet, according to IEMA’s Baxter, more than 90% of the organisation’s members globally are university-educated. And more than 50% of IEMA members have gone beyond gaining an undergraduate degree and also have a master’s degree and/or a Doctorate degree.

Baxter notes that, around a decade ago, many professionals will have sought multiple environment-related degrees. More recently, he has noticed a trend towards “blending” environment-related degrees with those related to business and finance. The soft skills provided by business qualifications, he argues, can be “combined with focused knowledge and rapidly make someone quite effective in driving change” within an organisation.

ICRS’s Healy urges us to look a little further back at the history of the sustainability profession to answer the question as to whether degrees are necessary for entry. In the 1990s and early 2000s, sustainability or CSR was truly in its infancy. Those who entered the profession then were likely to come in from other parts of business – not with qualifications in climate or nature or resources, but with “some really strong transferrable skills” and “deep knowledge” in a related field, such as supply chain management or health and safety.

For Healy, this is still a route by which many people, of various generations, are entering the field – and she sees it potentially becoming more common, despite an increased offering of specific environmental management degrees.

“Reskilling is absolutely the watchword at the moment,” she says. Once would-be sustainability leaders have shown their work ethic and strong set of soft skills, they can learn the more technical aspects on the job – and, in Healy’s view, companies would do well to support them to do so.

Down to a T

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

Crucially, the skills and expertise can be academic or practical.

A word of caution from Friedman, though: “Clearly, you need people with deep skills in technical roles like carbon accounting or metrics development. The world of data now is so complex and you can get so much information about your products, projects and materials. But are your technical workers your change agents? They’re more like an information agent, who needs to feed into the change agent.”

In other words, while you may want a ‘T-shaped’ leader heading up your sustainability team, they may need to be supported by a team with some ‘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 grown 8% annually, on average, over the past five years. And, since 2019, the hiring rate for ‘green talent’ has overtaken the global hiring rate.

It’s clear to see how taking an environment-related degree or another qualification is probably the quickest route to making one an ‘I-shaped’ professional. As the regulatory and stakeholder pressure grows on big companies to do their fair share for climate, degrees are starting to launch and scale in fields like carbon management.

But you could build the skills needed for both strokes of the ‘T’ in academia, on the job, or through different qualifications. IEMA’s Baxter highlighted the fact that the UK’s first sustainability masters-level apprenticeship has recently launched – this could be an alternative to an undergraduate for those looking to reskill mid-career. And, for those just entering the workforce, Baxter explains, the Environmental Practitioner Degree Apprenticeship is appealing to employers and prospective students alike in terms of financing and skills imparted.

At edie’s recent Sustainability Skills Seminar, held as a precursor to the Sustainability Leaders Forum, two speakers recounted how, during recent hiring processes, they were ultimately looking for a good track record on delivery and a strong transferable skillset over a specific academic qualification.

Embedded approach

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

The debate around whether sustainability professionals should effectively work to make themselves redundant has been ongoing for several years. Those who say “yes” argue that a truly sustainable organisation should have embedded the need for science-based action for planet and a net-positive societal impact in every department and in governance and culture.

As Healy puts it: “I think you can make any job greener and, in my view, you now have to do that.” It bears noting that LinkedIn’s report reveals that 40% of jobs posted in 2021 had ‘greening potential’.

Healy continues: “Sustainability is now everybody’s responsibility. We’re seeing a shift away from little bits of work happening within one function… Any business making products or offering services needs to be thinking about building sustainability in right from the foundations, and I think some aspects, like social value, will start to drive this thinking.”

In this situation, everyone would be upskilled and reskilled – including the board. Board-level skills changes will be increasingly necessary as regulation and legislation changes, Healy believes.

It’s clear that workers would broadly support a shift to a situation more like this one. A recent survey by Aviva found that three-fifths of UK workers would like to move into a role they believe is “greener”.

But, like Friedman, Healy recognises that there is still a need for people with different technical specialisms and for broader roles. For now, the death of the sustainability function is an idea rather than a reality.

And, with the sustainability agenda moving so rapidly, and with most sustainability teams being asked to deliver big results with a small staff, knowing your specific role and its potential inside out is key. When asked for their best pieces of advice for those in, or entering, the sustainability profession, all three experts interviewed for this feature emphasised the importance of honing focus and prioritisation.

“Keep your approach quite strategic and really understand how large, global, interconnected issues will impact a specific organisation,” Baxter advises.

Similarly, Healy said a top skill she’d advise all professionals to hone is “ruthless prioritisation – being able to listen to the noise and filter it”. She added: “some of that is materiality, some of that is understanding what’s going on.” In other words, businesses will want to do the most impactful things to reduce their negative impact, but will also likely to act in the areas perceived as most important to staff and customers.

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

In summary, whatever your skillset and field of focus – and whether you gained your expertise academically or otherwise – making sure you’re clear about exactly what you’re good at, what you want to achieve, and why, will make you a stronger sustainability leader.


Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie