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Sustainability Managers Bring More to the Table Than Environmental Expertise

Image credit: BRE

Many companies today view sustainable business practices as an integral part of their overall strategy — and much more than an opportunity to enhance their brand image. A natural extension of this trend is increased demand for experienced executives who can help companies meet their environmental goals. According to a 2014 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, approximately 625,000 ‘green’ jobs were created in the renewable energy sector alone in the United States last year. In many cases, these are well-paying positions requiring higher education and/or specialized training. For example, Payscale.com reports that sustainability managers in the U.S. make about $72,942 annually.

(For purposes of this article, “sustainability manager” describes executives who lead sustainability efforts within an organization, although the titles and specific roles are numerous and wide-ranging.)

The role of sustainability manager is not new, and there are high expectations of professionals in the field. The position continues to evolve and is approaching an inflection point. As corporate environmental concerns proliferate, driven by greater environmental awareness in the C-suite and increased regulation, among other factors, there are more ways for sustainability managers to influence the direction of their companies on an expanded list of issues — not just environmental.

Companies need executives who cannot only manage their business units effectively, but who can also leverage their expertise to improve performance across the company. Sustainability managers are uniquely positioned to do this because the nature of their role is finding creative solutions to complex business problems.

The prospects for job growth and advancement in the field of sustainability have never been better. Sustainability managers have a unique opening to impact their companies at every level and expand the influence of their field, but this is not inevitable. They need a vision and an action plan.

If your goal as a sustainability manager is to leverage new opportunities and enhance your credibility throughout your organization, here are three key “first steps” to take:

  1. Add to your skill set. If your educational background is in the sciences, consider broadening the skills you bring to the table by identifying other areas of the company to which you can gain exposure — or take some general business courses to increase your knowledge in a particular area. Even if your position is focused on technical issues and requires a scientist’s mind, you need to understand business management in order to continue advancing professionally. Knowledge of finance and accounting, for example, will allow you to speak the language of the CEO and CFO and increase your value to them. Moreover, identify ways to integrate these newly acquired skills within your division of the organization.
  2. Network internally. Often, business executives are better at networking outside their company than inside. They may take the time to attend an industry conference out of state, but they rarely visit a colleague one floor down who works in another division. The better you understand how your organization works, the more you will see how you and your business unit can interact and add value to other areas across the enterprise. Take it upon yourself to build relationships at every level of your organization so you have the personal connections you need to expand your influence.
  3. Redefine your role. Do not wait for somebody else to recognize the broader role you can play in your organization. Often, sustainability executives are focused on the end products and services consumed by customers, such as sourcing more environmentally friendly raw materials. However, the sustainability manager is also uniquely suited to champion better internal practices that can drive the bottom line, such as a company-wide effort to reduce paper waste or electricity usage. In your conversations with colleagues, help them see how closely aligned your role and expertise are with company goals. Ultimately, environmental sustainability and business sustainability are similar goals because both are focused on making the company more resilient and financially sound.

In many corporate settings, sustainability managers would do well to drop the “environmental” from their job titles. Business sustainability is the goal, and while it certainly encompasses environmental issues, these managers can bring much more to the table.

At the University of West Georgia, for example, our Sustainable Business Honors Program — a combined Bachelor’s and MBA program available to high-achieving students — provides a general business education with a special focus on the sustainability of the company, its employees and partners, and the environment. Students take general business courses, including management, marketing, finance and accounting, with specific applications for those who want to pursue a career in sustainability. The results are well-rounded students with a broad base of business knowledge and expertise in how to apply it across an organization.

Executives need to be deliberate about their preparation, adding the right mix of knowledge and experience to make the most of their role and its potential to have a significant, positive impact on their organizations. Now more than ever, companies need creative problem-solvers to step up. Perhaps no other executives are better prepared than sustainability managers to do that.    


Dr. Faye McIntyre is dean of the Richards College of Business and Sewell Chair of Private Enterprise at the University of West Georgia.

[Read more about Dr. Faye McIntyre]