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The changing face of sustainability leadership: Do I need an environmental degree to get into the profession?

The changing face of sustainability leadership: Do I need an environmental degree to get into the profession?

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

This is the second of a series on the evolution and sustainability skills. It was written as part edies Business Leadership month.The first part, which can be found at this link, is the first of the feature. This article explains why soft skills are more important than technical expertise for sustainability professionals.

The 2020s sustainability leader is a master strategist developer and a unifying force for strategic delivery. Strategy delivery necessitates influence and engaging, collaboration, change management, problem-solving and course correction.

These skills are unlikely to be taught in classes, especially if you are studying for a degree in geography, ecology, or atmospheric science.

IEMAs Baxter says that more than 90% of its members are university-educated. More than half of IEMA members have more than an undergraduate degree. They also have a masters and/or doctorate degree.

Baxter says that around a decade back, many professionals would have sought multiple environmental-related degrees. Baxter noticed a trend in recent years to combine environment-related degrees and those related to finance and business. He argues that the soft skills gained from business qualifications can be combined with a focused knowledge to make it possible for someone to drive change in an organisation.

Healy from ICRSs urges us look back at the history of sustainability in order to answer the question about whether degrees are necessary to enter. In the 1990s and 2000s, sustainability (or CSR) was in its infancy. People who entered the profession at that time were likely to have come from other business areas and had strong transferable skills and deep understanding in a related field such as supply chains management or health and safety.

Healy says that this is still a way for many people to enter the field, and she sees it growing in popularity despite an increase in environmental management degrees.

She believes that skills are the most important thing at the moment. After potential sustainability leaders have demonstrated their hard work ethic and a strong set of soft skill, they can learn more technical aspects of the job. Healys believes that companies would be well-served to support them in this endeavor.

You can get down to a T

CISLs Friedman agrees with this view and explains how she tries to give students T-shaped skills. The term “T-shaped” was first used internally by McKinsey&Company in the 1980s. It was popularized in 1990s.

The skills and expertise required to be successful in any field are crucial.

Friedman cautions: You need people who are skilled in technical roles, such as carbon accounting and metrics development. The world of data is complex, and you can find so much information about products, projects, and materials. Are your technical workers the change agents? They’re more like an agent of information, who needs to feed the change agent.

This means that while you may want a T-shaped leader to lead your sustainability team, they may need support from a team of I-shaped members. Early evidence suggests that this is happening. LinkedIns Global Green Skills ReportNotes that the average number of job postings for green skills has increased by 8% per year over the past five-years. The global hiring rate has been outpaced by the green talent hiring rate since 2019.

It’s easy to see that an environment-related degree, or any other qualification, is the fastest route to becoming an I-shaped professional. As big companies are under increasing regulatory and stakeholder pressure to contribute to climate change, more degrees are being launched in fields such as carbon management and scaling up.

However, you can also acquire the skills necessary to do both strokes in the T by studying, working on the job or obtaining different qualifications. Baxter, IEMAs, highlighted that the UK’s first sustainability masters level apprenticeship was recently launched. This could be an option to an undergraduate for those seeking to reskill their mid-career. Baxter says that the Environmental Practitioner degree apprenticeship is appealing to both employers and potential students in terms of the funding and skills they are taught.

The edies Sustainability Skills Seminar was held as a prelude to the Sustainability Leaders ForumTwo speakers shared how, in recent hiring processes they were looking for a strong track record in delivery and strong transferable skill sets over a particular academic qualification.

Embedded approach

If anyone could be a T-shaped professional could they become a leader in sustainability?

Since many years, the debate about whether sustainability professionals should be able to effectively make themselves redundant has been ongoing. Some say that true sustainability requires that every department, as well as governance and culture, be science-based and have a positive societal impact.

Healy states that you can make any job better and that you have to do so. It is important to note that LinkedIns report shows that 40% of jobs that were posted in 2021 had the potential to be greener.

Healy says that sustainability is now everyone’s responsibility. Were 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.

This situation would see everyone upskilled and reskilled, including the board. Healy believes that the regulation and legislation changes will make it more difficult to update skills at the board level.

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It is evident that workers would be open to the idea of a shift to a similar situation. Aviva recently found that three-fifths (53%) of UK workers would prefer to be in a job that is more green.

Healy, like Friedman acknowledges the need for people with different technical skills and for more general roles. The death of the sustainability function is a concept, not a reality.

It is crucial to understand your role and potential, especially with the sustainability agenda changing so quickly. All three experts interviewed for this feature stressed the importance of prioritisation and focus when asked what their top tips were for people entering or aspiring to the sustainability profession.

Baxter recommends that you keep your approach strategic and understand how interconnected, large-scale issues will impact a particular organisation.

Healy stated that professional professionals should be able prioritize their tasks and be able listen to the noise to filter it. She said that some of that is materiality and some of it is understanding what’s happening. Businesses will do whatever it takes to reduce their negative impact but will also be more likely to take action in areas that are most important to employees and customers.

Friedman explained that businesses are looking for someone to help them understand how their industries and organisations are impacted and impacted by global issues.

Whatever your skills and focus, academic or otherwise, making sure you know exactly what you are good in, what you want to do, and why will help you be a stronger leader in sustainability.

© Faversham House Ltd 2022 edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. Without prior written consent, reproduction and distribution are not permitted.

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