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How to Plan a Business Career in Sustainability

More than at any other time in history, humanity is collectively aware of its impact on the planet.

The public is recognizing the need to change how we produce and consume goods and services, and business executives are increasingly considering resource constraints, climate change, human rights, environmental accounting, community engagement, and consumer conscience in their business calculus.

Similarly, an increasing number of business school students want to get involved in this important work. The good news is opportunities are abundant, and growing. The bad news is there’s not a lot of information out there on how to pursue them.

When we first launched the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business in 2013, we knew an increasing number of students want careers in sustainability but are uncertain of how to plan for them. Some have clear aspirations, but others aren’t quite sure what they want or what opportunities exist. Many simply say they want to have a positive impact on the world.

Part of the difficulty is terminology. “Sustainability” doesn’t clearly indicate the broad range of topics and work involved. It includes reducing environmental impact by using less energy and cutting waste, but the broader scope includes much more, such as the new “shared economy” business models of AirBnB and ZipCar. It also includes the new, circular economy practices of companies like Best Buy and Puma that are finding ways to get products back at end-of-life for reuse or recycling. It even includes marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist that help used products find second and third lives.

So where should students focus if they want to dedicate their careers to tackling environmental and social challenges? And how important are sustainability topics for those who simply want to be well-rounded leaders and managers?

Career “Lanes” for Navigating the Landscape

We’ve developed a roadmap in response to these questions.

It divides the types of roles someone may hold at different stages of a career into three “lanes.” The lanes are defined by the amount of sustainability-specific focus and responsibility involved. We believe this concept helps students and professionals alike see the landscape of opportunities—and the different ways to navigate through them—more clearly. We also conducted interviews with executives from across these lanes to capture their insights and advice.

  1. The Focused Lane

    The Focused Lane refers to those roles that require a large degree of sustainability-related expertise. For example, Rob Kaplan, who earned his MBA in 2007 at UC Berkeley, is the managing director of the Closed Loop Fund. The fund seeks to invest $100 million to accelerate the adoption of the “circular economy” through impact investing, sustainability, and recycling innovation.

    An increasing number of students aspire to roles like Kaplan’s, and there are an increasing number of them available. But interest in these Focused Lane positions exceeds the number of opportunities available. “Sustainability jobs are few and far between,” Kaplan told us.

  2. The Hybrid Lane

    Hybrid roles have a more traditional focus, but also have some direct responsibilities or projects tied to sustainability. They require a strong grasp of the sustainability-related dynamics and issues in the industry, company, and role.

    Nadeem Sheikh, for example, is senior vice president and GM of Opower’s international business. Understanding the ins and outs of potential carbon regulations and consumer trends allows him to help utility clients understand how to benefit society while continuing to grow their businesses.

    Hybrid Lane positions like Nadeem’s are great opportunities for people seeking sustainability work. There are a greater number of these positions available, and they can lead to a broader set of career experiences and future opportunities.

  3. The Traditional+ Lane

    These roles may not explicitly require, or even expect, someone to hold sustainability-related knowledge. Yet companies do expect managers to understand how trends impact their businesses, and then capitalize on opportunities and mitigate risks. That’s what people come to business school to learn.

    In 2013, the global managing director of McKinsey & Co., Dominic Barton, spoke at Stanford’s business school about the trends reshaping the global economy. He called one “pricing the planet,” referring to the convergence of rising demand for resources, constrained supplies, and changing social attitudes toward environmental protection. Increasingly over the next decades, when graduates are in the prime of their careers, being able to respond to this trend will be valuable, if not expected.

We refer to these three types of roles as career “lanes,” because professionals may choose to move in and out of them at different times. Recognizing each lane and position offers a different set of resume-building experiences can help a person continue moving forward toward a desirable career destination.

Getting Where You Want to Go

In 2011, Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent asked Bea Perez to shift lanes and take a new Focused Lane role leading Coca-Cola’s sustainability efforts. As chief marketing officer at the time, she didn’t have environmental or sustainability experience, but she did have more than 15 years of executive experience at Coke and a great record of promotions across a variety of different roles.

In our interviews with sustainability executives, we found a long track record of success in mainstream roles is a common background. Many we spoke with suggested aspiring graduates first seek traditional or Traditional+ roles in order to get both broad and deep business experience. “Get the leadership development program experience first,” said Eileen Andersen, a finance manager in the supply chain group at General Mills.

Some people do seek and find sustainability focused work early in their careers. But to climb to higher levels of responsibility, they generally need to gain broader business experience as well. Take Kevin O’Donnell for example. Kevin now leads some of Nike’s most innovative sustainability work globally. Early in his career he had eight years of deep environmental work. But he decided to shift toward more technology and business development roles. “It was a bit risky at the time, and a lateral move, but positioned me very well for where my career trajectory would take me,” he said.

Of course, some students may not aspire to executive leadership roles that require a broader set of business experiences, and that’s fine. Regardless, for those seeking to make a positive impact through business, understanding the concept of lanes will be useful in building a competitive resume to enable a successful career trajectory.

Getting Down to Business

So how can business people who want to maximize positive impact over their entire careers decide when it’s best to seek Traditional+, Hybrid, or Focused experiences? Well, it depends.

I recommend the following exercise. Take sustainability out of the equation and do some deep career exploration. Ask, where have I been? What am I good at? What matters to me in terms of lifestyle, income, location, and work environment? What am I passionate about (other than sustainability)?

Identify attractive career paths. Where could I excel, love the work, and enjoy life? Then—and only then—bring sustainability back into the equation, by asking: On which of those paths will sustainability become increasingly important in the years ahead? Take advantage of where the world is headed. As Hall of Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky said, skate to where the puck is going to be. That’s where you’ll find a sweet spot for career success and making a positive impact on the world.

With an understanding of how past experience, personal strengths, and career goals align with sustainability trends, a prospective student can plan how to get the most out of the business school experience. For example, in the hybrid MBA program at Georgia Tech (which just moved up to #6 on Corporate Knights’ Global 100 Sustainable MBA rankings!) we encourage sustainability-minded students to consider our Strategic Sustainability Concentration, as well as the Net Impact Club, sustainability-focused career panels and workshops, the Board Fellows program, the Global Social Venture Competition, and other similar opportunities. Activities like these develop a compelling personal brand and skills at the intersection of business and sustainability.

A final piece of advice

When choosing a job after school, or further down the career path, don’t let excessive focus on the position or title, or a small difference in pay, take your eyes off the horizon. Get pointed in the right direction and gain momentum. You can course-correct and change lanes as you get further down the road. Target the industry or even the company that’s a good fit for you. Or the right fit might be under a particular manager, who will be a great coach and advocate.

Align yourself with good companies and great mentors, and be a strong individual and team player. In that way, you’ll be able to make steady progress toward achieving you career goals in sustainability, or elsewhere.

Author Bio
Howard Connell is the managing director of Georgia Tech’s Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Scheller College of Business and the co-faculty advisor for Net Impact at Scheller. He is also founding board chair of the Center for Civic Innovation, an advisory board member of the Lifecycle Building Center, and a sustainability consultant and advisor. Follow the center at @GT_ACSB.

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