What skills do you need to build a successful career in sustainability?

As vice-president of innovation and sustainability at consumer goods giant RB (formerly Reckitt Benckiser), David Challis has, by any measure, built a successful career in sustainability.

Challis played a crucial role in the development and implementation of RB’s ‘betterbusiness’ strategy, which has three main 2020 targets: reducing emissions and water impact by a third, generating a third of net revenue from sustainable products, and helping 200 million people improve their health and hygiene.

More than 50% of RB’s products are now considered ‘sustainable’, while its European and North American factories now send zero waste to landfill.

To explain exactly how he got to where he is now in his career, Challis will be talking at edie’s inaugural Sustainability Skills conference at the end of January. Ahead of his talk – titled ‘What is expected from a sustainability professional?’ – Challis spoke with edie about the attributes needed to succeed in the industry.

Can you give a brief overview of your talk: What is expected from a sustainability professional?

“I’ve worked in this area for the past thirteen years – so I’ll be sharing some of my experiences.  The industry has changed a lot and expanded during that time but many of the choices are still the same.  I’ll share how I planned my career and gained the experiences that set me up for my current role at RB where I lead both the sustainability agenda and the company’s innovation activities.”

Firstly a bit more info on your background – what did you study, and how did you get to where you are?

“I studied biological sciences – which gave me a good basic understanding of scientific concepts and trained me to think in an analytical way.  I started my career in Kimberly-Clark working on a variety of environmental, safety and regulatory affairs topics. 

“Over time I specialised in environmental management, and then broadened out to sustainability management.  I then moved to focus on PR and communications for a few years working in a PR agency and then a sustainability strategy and communications agency, before returning in-house to RB in 2011.”

Do you need a more diverse set of skills in a sustainability role than an equivalent business role?

“I think flexibility is key.  You have to be a generalist and a specialist.  You have to be the one that lights a fire under people and keeps it burning – being inspirational and a great storyteller.  But sometimes you have to be the one saying no or stop to ensure that the organisation makes the right decisions.  That’s a tough balancing act for anyone so I’d say it’s always interesting working in sustainability – no day is ever the same.”

In your talk, you mention the importance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. What do you mean by that?

“By hard skills, I mean the technical topics that give you the ability to perform a role well and provide great advice on sustainability topics.  Soft skills are more around emotional intelligence and leadership style. 

“When I’m recruiting I usually look for a technical qualification to provide that grounding and rigour – be it a science or engineering degree or a more specific sustainability-related qualification. And I also look for an agile leadership style.  I find that in sustainability, there’s often a really diverse set of partners and stakeholders – from internal to external, technical to creative, operational managers to business leaders. 

“Being able to flex your communications and influencing style is really important.   I think a lot of this can be learned on the job and picked up with the right training and professional development opportunities along the way.  But I believe being able to demonstrate some kind of technical ability, as well as a flexible management style, is an essential grounding.”

What advice would you give someone starting out in sustainability?

“Focus on developing a deep understanding of the topic but always have communications and stakeholder management in mind – there’s no point in knowing what to do if you can’t influence others around you to make it happen.”

edie’s Sustainability Skills Workshop

Taking place at the HAllam Conference Centre in London on 26 January, this essential one-day workshop will give sustainability professionals the skills they need to take the next step in their careers.

The first edie workshop: Sustainability Skills, brings 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, plus case studies and open discussions from the sustainability leaders who are already making it happen.

The event offers you the opportunity to hone your existing skills and acquire new ones to ensure future career development and personal growth. The workshop will encourage interaction and engagement, allowing attendees to apply their new skills to effect change in their own organisations.

Find out more about the Sustainability Skills workshop and register to attend here.

Brad Allen


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