Top 10 skills that every sustainability professionals needs

From being a good storyteller to 'wearing different hats', the modern day sustainability professional needs a huge array of skills to be able to work towards a long-term vision and inspire change within - and outside of - their organisation.

Navigating the complex minefield of boardroom briefings can see a sustainability manager’s elevator pitch sink before the doors have shut.

While ‘sustainability’ is gradually rising up the corporate agenda, it is still seen by some as a forgotten department, with professionals struggling to convince key stakeholders of the risks and opportunities that can arise from the wicked problems of climate change, resource depletion and population growth.

Sharing your love for the environment to a board member who is more concerned about the company’s latest financial results, or expressing concerns about energy consumption to employees who are reluctant to change their routine, won’t set these ideas into motion.

You need the commercial awareness to identify risks and opportunities; the knowledge and innovation skills to translate sustainability into business strategy; and the communication skills to engage the entire organisation from the boardroom through to the sales team.

At edie’s inaugural Sustainability Skills workshop last month, we brought together the leaders of tomorrow for an interactive day of practical sessions designed to actively enhance the skills required to take the next step in your sustainability career. We spoke to some of the speakers and delegates at that event, to bring you the top 10 sustainability skills required to build a successful career in sustainability.

Video: Inside the #edieskills workshop

1) Be a good storyteller

The art of storytelling is one that Sainsbury’s head of sustainability Paul Crewe has used to set his board requests apart from the rest.

Paul’s ability to translate bottom-line facts and figures that a sustainability project could bring into a compelling and relevant story has proved an effective way of gaining traction within a company and turning concepts into reality.

“Right now, I have a fantastically passionate team who are really proud of what we do and every day they are working like Duracell bunnies,” Paul told delegates at the event. “It’s my job to make sure that the passion can be understood in a really clear way.

“I can’t present this atmosphere to the board in an overenthusiastic manner. But channelled enthusiasm creates real business case opportunities, which is what the board are interested in.

“If you know your audience – truly know your audience – then it becomes easier to appeal to them. You can home in on their passions and you can even mirror them to grow this passion across the company.”

2) Utilise the ‘superpower’ of empathy

While there isn’t always a need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, it is always worth understanding your employees and taking on board their point.

“Having empathy and being able to listen to and understand other people’s position is frankly a superpower,” says Interface’s co-innovation partner Jon Khoo. “Sustainability touches every aspect of business and you’ve got to be able to understand where people are coming from.

“Some people will come from a completely different angle but you can’t dismiss them, you have to listen to what they have to say, and if you emphasise with them, then you begin to understand.”

3) Have strong business acumen

Well-versed phrases that don’t drift into cliché are, ironically, worth their weight in gold. The ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest part’ mantra might as well be gospel. Realising where the weaknesses are in a business is the first step to improving them, according to Canon Europe’s interim sustainability director Walter Tobe.  

“You need to understand the business and you need to understand the commercial value in order to generate commercial and sustainable values,” says Tobe. “Once you’ve looked through the business, you know where to intervene and what measures are needed to improve sustainability in that area.”

4) Take a holistic approach

Buy-in from the top may seem like the most important barrier to overcome for many sustainability professionals (especially energy managers). But even if you are given the green light to implement a new sustainable scheme, resistance and reluctance from any area of a company can reduces the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the plan.

“It’s all about collaborative working,” says behaviour change consultant Dr Philippa Coan. “You need the ability to work with multiple different groups within –and outside – an organisation.

“It’s not only recognising that you need top management buy-in – by recognising their concerns and priorities – but also involving all employees with anything that you are introducing, because ultimately it’s their behaviour that you’re trying to change.”

5) Win friends and influence people

Deciphering a problem that is in front of you may require some simple internal arithmetic. But for others the path to sustainability needs spelling out.

Being able to influence and persuade people who may be in the dark about certain areas of sustainability is a necessity to get the ball rolling with particular projects.

John Burke from the Institute of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability says: “You need the ability to take complex issues, distil them and use them to marshal arguments to senior people that the road to a sustainable business is not actually that hard.”

6) Scout the landscape

Once you’ve managed to take the reigns on all of the internal and external operating factors that run throughout the business, you need to realise what other companies in your sector are doing on key areas of sustainability and CSR.

Whether they are competitors or collaborators, knowing which companies are throwing punches by introducing ambitious green initiatives gives you a potential platform to piggyback off.

Forum for the Future’s head of sustainable business Ben Kellard says: “You need to be a systems thinker and a systems worker. You need to understand the systems that you are operating in, both within the organisation and outside of it.

“This helps you gain an understanding of the power dynamics, major players and how to intervene in that system to create a more resilient future organisation.”

7) Become a master motivator

It’s all well and good having the data and knowing the areas where improvement is necessary, but if you can’t pass that information on without motivating the important stakeholders to make the change, then the necessity can become lost in translation.

“Competition is a brilliant way to get your message across,” explains Northern Rail’s energy and environment manager Gareth Williams. “By giving site managers or other areas of a business access to data and the information that you are trying to improve, you give them the visual motivation to increase the data.

“Give them access to other sites’ data not only promotes this competition but it allows people to focus their time on the sites and areas that need improving the most. Once you start to give the information, directors can make the decisions on what areas need managing.”

8) Show them the money

On the other end of the spectrum to having the data in hand, having specific examples of what impact a sustainable initiative has had – particularly if it is a positive financial impact – is an effective device in promoting any projects.

“When explaining the financial costs and gains to someone who isn’t a part of the specific team, they start to wonder why that money was spent so it is important to show what each action has achieved,” says Olam International’s global public relations manager Nikki Barber.

“Unless you tell them that each action did x, y or z – whereby you actually demonstrate the impact – then they gain a greater understanding of the project.”

9) Know your audience

People have always hated the idea that they’re being ‘sold’ something – it takes away the personal goals of an initiative and replaces the aim of the concept with a bottom-line financial goal.

By learning what makes board members tick and what makes them get out of bed in the morning, you have a way to personalise a message that turns the dreaded elevator pitch into a passionate conversation. This also goes for employees when driving behaviour change. If you understand your audience, they will understand you.

“A good idea is to find out what the leaders in your company are passionate about and what they enjoy,”says RB’s vice president of innovation & sustainability David Challis.

“It can be a personal passion or it can be their departmental role, but once you know what interests them you have a way to communicate with them.”

10) Innovate to accelerate

Bringing this list fall circle is Sainsbury’s Paul Crewe, who used the Sustainability Skills workshop to reiterate the need for sustainability professionals to be prepared to constantly adapt to an ever-shifting business environment and come up with new, innovative ideas.

“A typical part of my day is always about thinking what comes next,” says Paul. “When you’ve got a programme or activity that has become very successful so much so that it has proven that sustainability can generate finance, you have to keep an eye on the future and what’s next.

“You won’t always be given what you’re used to receiving because things change, new partnerships get introduced and new innovations come about, you need to keep on top of these and fortunately it doesn’t cost the earth to innovate.”

These interviews all took place at edie’s inaugural Sustainability Skills workshop, which provided sustainability professionals with the skills they need to take the next step in their careers.

Luke Nicholls & Matt Mace

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