The Sustainability Jobs Debate: Reporting from the Net Impact Conference

by Aman Singh Das | November 01, 2010

  • My Vault

I now finally understand why so many professionals, students and entrepreneurs say how much they love the annual Net Impact conference. Because the sheer energy of this year's conference, titled 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Decade, was enough to generate thousands of solutions while building incredibly smart and self-aware business leaders.

In terms of numbers, this might be the only conference that attracts students in such a large number united in working toward a sustainable economy: Over 2,500 attendees, 350 speakers and 120 panels along with a full-day career expo, all crammed into two days. While it is impossible to encapsulate every bit of information exchanged, I will highlight lessons and takeaways for your career path and job search, concluding with a final post that will underline overarching trends and attempt to look ahead.

Careers in CSR

Pursuing a career in CSR and sustainability was obviously a hot topic at the conference, and served as the theme for two of the most interesting panels I attended: CSR: Charting your Own Careers and Corporate Careers That Make a Difference.

The first panel was led by Miranda Ballentine, the director for sustainability with Walmart and Stephane N'diaye, an executive in sustainability with Accenture. They outlined some of the key strengths that students and professionals will need if they're planning a career in CSR. While a lot of their advice was generic (get the right education, the right internships, know yourself, etc.) it was the Q&A session that really drew some spirited comments and observations. Highlights:

"Go do whatever you're big enough to do"

Careers and jobs in sustainability and CSR were the main theme at the 18th annual Net Impact conference

This lesson from Walmart Founder Sam Walton to his son (and current Walmart Chairman) Rob Walton was the overarching theme for Ballentine's advice: you don’t need the perfect job description to make a difference. Coming from someone who represents a company that serves 140 million customers a week and an employee count in the millions, Ballentine is speaking from a crucial vantage point.

Being the largest retailer worldwide has its powers, one of them being able to dictate consumer behavior and the resulting push for competition. Hence, if you work at Walmart, your leadership has the potential of redefining the global landscape because of the sheer reach of your company's stakeholders, whether those are customers, employees or shareholders. And today, Walmart's mandate is sustainability.

Practically however, Ballentine's lesson translates into finding a job you're skilled in, passionate about, and excel at. The rest--responsible decision making and ethical judgment--should follow naturally.

Just not enough sustainability jobs…

Identifying a key factor of today's job market, Ballentine and N'diaye both emphasized that there just weren't enough jobs with titles like director of sustainability to support the thousands of students graduating from business schools every year.

(I've discussed this paradox often, most recently, through our CSR and the Job Hunt series, where the graduates observed that a majority of advertised jobs required a lot of industry experience, something they didn’t have to offer. At the same time, most companies were reverting to internal transfers to build their CSR and sustainability teams, thus closing out graduates like them.)

The solution, according to Ballentine: "Choose your jobs with courage and look for companies that have truly embedded CSR in their culture. That way you will be able to do CSR regardless of your job title." N'diaye backed her up, offering that, "There are sustainability jobs available all over the business, not just the CSR department. Think outside the box. You don't need to belong to any one department to follow corporate responsibility."

…but there is hope…

N'diaye suggested charting a career by looking at where the key trends are headed. For example, if energy and population are increasingly prevalent topics, how will they affect your career, your lifestyle, and your choices? Once you've figured that out, "position yourself accordingly."

As a starting point, the two panelists identified four areas that are beginning to offer a lot of job opportunities:
•Measuring sustainability (Research, accounting, project management jobs)
•Using technology in sustainability (IT jobs)
•Building the business case for sustainability (Consulting jobs)
•Regulations in sustainability (Legal, compliance, corporate governance jobs)

...and a huge opportunity

Ironically, companies that have never addressed sustainability, according to the panel, also offer huge opportunities. "Find a way in through a non-sustainability job and drive change. It doesn’t matter whether you work in consulting, accounting, IT, manufacturing or communications. Be courageous and resilient to drive change from whatever role you have," said Ballentine.

The business case for CSR: How do you justify your role to your company?

Only last week, William Paddock, founder of WAP Sustainability, emphasized how exhausting it is to justify pursuing a career in CSR in a job interview. When an audience member asked the panel how they justified their role every day, Ballentine answered that for her justification had never been an issue. "In fact, my team is growing. At Walmart, sustainability is understood," she added.

Of course, considering how Walmart's Sustainability Consortium has seen the company's emergence as a formidable champion of environmental sustainability over the past year, Ballentine's experience is not surprising. Had the question been put to someone at, say, a media or financial services company, I'd venture the answer being a tad different.

Will sustainability self-destruct?

According to Ballentine, sustainability as a departmental function is here to stay. "I used to think that it would one day go away [because it would be so instrumentally embedded across companies]. Now I see it differently. If everyone is managing money, we still have finance departments. If we're all taking care of regulations, we still have legal departments. So why would we do away with the sustainability department?" she said, adding, "There will always be technical aspects of sustainability that will require a department. Does everyone need to an expert? No. But we will need a team responsible for embedding CSR in everyone's job."

Go Get an Internship!

A final note of advice came from Katherine Jennrich, senior manager for energy services with Wal-mart, who served on the second panel, which focused primarily on the career paths of the three panelists, all of whom are profiled in the soon-to-be-released guide Corporate Careers That Make a Difference, from Net Impact.

Her message: Focus on internships.

As she put it; "Internships were as important as three years of graduate school for me […] That a triple bottom line is essential is easy to understand from textbooks, but my internship was invaluable for teaching me that one of those lines is more important than the others."

Next: The Future of Management Education: Rethinking the MBA

Filed Under: CSR

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