Nederlandse versie making business work for society

Part two: Sustainability manager: career maker or breaker?

maart 9, 2016

My recent blog on challenges of sustainability managers andthe recruitment process sparked quite a number of reactions. One of the suggestions was to organise a discussion in person. That sounds like a good idea, but first let’s dive a little deeper.

In my blog (January 29th) I claimed that many corporations have a hard time recruiting sustainability managers. First of all because an effective sustainability manager is ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. Ideally an internal high- potential should take the job. But doing so, and thus challenging corporate processes and top management, may be a risk to one’s career. External candidates should have very strong social skills because progressing a sustainability agenda while having to become part of the corporate DNA is extremely challenging. I observed that few sustainability managers in The Netherlands join other companies. Does this say anything about the maturity of  sustainability recruitment ?  I concluded with a few questions: Does the function of sustainability manager still lack the level of craftsmanship necessary to jump ship. And isn’t this a shame because the transition to a sustainable economy is key for corporations and society? Wouldn’t we all be better off with a vibrant pool of sustainability managers?

The responses to this blog were positive. Its messages were acknowledged and some nuance was added. Somebody said to be ‘more optimistic’. Because as organisations are progressing their sustainability efforts they are looking for new business developers and partnership developers, more than change agents. Someone else said that low mobility among sustainability managers is a positive development rather than a (potential) problem. It reflects that these professionals do take a longer-term perspective and have the commitment to initiate and catalyse this process. And a managing director from a frontrunner in the financial sector said she has had good experience with people from the business becoming sustainability officers or managers, and returning to the business again. So is there really a problem?

Several reactions point out there is. Especially the toughness of change management was underlined; lobbying for buy-in from senior management comes with struggles. Not least because sustainability managers present business concepts that challenge the simpler business concepts of their peers. This requires that a sustainability manager, someone said, should be visibly surrounded by a high level (board level) internal mentor/sponsor. Thus he/she is not perceived as being a Don Quixote but indeed doing the business of the business. A sustainability manager has to play an important challenging and convening role. But he/she can achieve little without shared commitment and action.

It was also remarked that the job title is ill-defined. What do we mean, what is expected in a specific job in terms of objectives and performance? If the corporation has acknowledged the added value of becoming a sustainable organisation, it has to hire somebody whose key role is to create this sense of value. This probably requires other skills than hiring somebody to make sustainability operational.  Is sustainability a value and part of the DNA of the company? And when sustainability is embraced in the board and critical to core business strategy, this position becomes more attractive and gets filled by internal rising stars.  The manager needs stamina and resilience to progress a multi-year agenda.
But if a company, which unfortunately seems to happen, is merely interested in doing greenwash, it’s not very hard to find a candidate for that. 

Yet, as a sustainability manager you indeed have to be a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. But he/she to develop skills that are not readily applicable internally, so mobility is an issue. There is no consensus on whether it is preferable to have internal or external candidates. Again, it depends on the specific job description, the objectives and how it is embedded in the organisation.

One clear opinion was to kill the job title! For having a sustainability manager is an invitation to 'mainstream' functions to delegate all responsibilities to the sustainability department.  And I guess it can be concluded that most agree on one thing. A real transition towards becoming a sustainable company can only be successful if line managers take full responsibility.

So what does this mean for sustainability recruitment? There is room, one noted, for more specific recruitment agencies that understand and recognise the dualism of the job. And don’t let marketing guys run the show.

The debate will not be settled with this blog. And if readers are interested in bringing several people to the table and having a discussion in person, let me know. Would be happy to organise a roundtable meeting.