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Recruiting sustainability superheroes

TPB’s Founder & Director, Pat Dwyer, advises on how to get the right sustainability skills for your company.

About 360 days ago we launched our fearless forecasts  for 2018 including more purpose-driven businesses, changing habits with greater environmental consciousness and Asia taking leadership. One thing we predicted was the death of the traditional CSR (corporate social responsibility) officer, whose primary role lay as a pit stop between philanthropic deeds, volunteer management, and keeping tabs on stock exchange requirements for reporting.

As a brand new year beckons, talent will move and already some companies have posted the job descriptions for sustainability officers, corporate responsibility managers and other similarly toned titles. What are we really looking for?

Let’s face it – if a company is hiring these types of roles, it is most likely not (yet) a leader in sustainability. They may have aspirations, and are willing enough to invest some resources to get it right – usually to comply with regulatory requirements or because HQ somewhere else has said so, or at least to be comparable with its peers.

There is no right or wrong job description, but I do find it odd when I am asked for a sample document that they simply can “copy and lift from” (and yes, that’s really happened). How can a consumer staples company’s sustainability officer role fit a casino’s, for example. I understand that this serves as a starting point – but when I see the very same job description posted on Linkedin and Jobstreet, I am left to wonder how serious this organisation really is. No two requirements are alike. So, if you want to attract CVs worth reading, let’s ensure that the call for candidates is clear and purposeful by bearing a few things in mind as you begin your search.


1. There is no such thing as a universal sustainability superhero

Most sustainability officers are overwhelmed, strapped for additional headcount and spin plates across the various topics of ESG. That’s because they were hired to prepare the GRI reports and fill in all possible surveys and indices, train the staff on the basics of sustainability issues, launch strategies on waste management and diversity – all that while expected to keep green groups warm and friendly. Expecting these new hires to handle all these from scratch, whilst learning about the business is mission impossible.

What could help is clarity on what the imminent priorities are. It’s hard to choose between the numbers gal, an engaging trainer, the former risk guy or the ex-NGO programmes officer, as they all probably can do bits and pieces of the tasks at hand. Having clear priorities can help you whittle them down better.
⇒ Need a GRI report completed? Find someone who has done it in various capacities. If there are resources to pay for an external writer, equip them with that, so they can focus on building the capacity internally for robust data gathering, measurement and a strategy around reporting objectives.
⇒ If there is a desire to have someone work closely with procurement on responsible sourcing, focus on finding talent that comes with knowledge of eco certification, or perhaps one that comes from the suppliers’ side even. Skills in developing clear RFPs (request for proposals) and experience in third party audits is going to come in handy.
⇒ Need someone to engage at the highest level? Turn to senior management talent that has an understanding of risk, finances, succession planning and business continuity. All these disciplines support long-term thinking, which is the very same principle that underpins managing environmental, social and governance issues.
⇒ Need a mix of skills and experience that is as unique as your organisation? Make sure your recruit is aware of sustainability consultancies with the broadest range of expertise – we suggest to start by joining TPB’s mailing list for invitation-only events and industry insights direct to your inbox.


2. Great on paper, but would they fit the company culture?

So you have been swarmed by applications – all that without a headhunter! That’s great news because it means that you have written a clear job description, and that your company appeals to change makers. Now that you are about to shortlist, what happens when they all have comparable strengths, rock solid sustainability experience and truly want to make a difference?

One thing to consider is how this person will fit the organisation. After two rounds of interviews, Betty (not her real name) felt that the company was ready to invest in empowering young leaders and her work experience in professional services make her fit to work under the CFO. She got the job, hit the ground running, only to exit less than half a year later. What happened was a story of nature vs nurture. The company was seeking someone who would do an in-depth milk run, engaging every single department individually and converting hearts as they went along. Because sustainability teams are usually very very lean (if not flying solo, especially in the beginning) the role usually requires day-to-day engagement of specific teams, and working extra hours at night crunching bigger picture items such as getting creative with training modules and engagement activities as well as researching the best practices in the industry. You have to be a confident self-starter, but an absolute team player with a lot of grit. Events like TPB’s invitation-only Breakfast with Purpose series, can help connect sustainability professionals with like-minded individuals.

Betty’s experience is echoed by recent research which reveals that employees who don’t feel the organisation is a good match are the most likely to leave within a year. As well as losing your employee, sudden departures are also a drag on productivity, team morale and your budget.

The importance of organisational culture is increasingly understood, as evidenced by studies such Within People’s How culture helps you grow. Indeed, 90% of managers in recent survey by CPA said that a candidate’s fit with the organisational culture is equal to or more important than their skills and experience. It therefore follows that promoting your culture can make sure that you attract a wider pool of potential candidates in the first place, so don’t leave out what makes you unique from your recruitment process.


3. Same same but different

One ad said “must have 8 years experience in the property sector preferably with green building expertise”. Not all property sector experience lends itself to green buildings knowledge and green buildings require other critical skills such as utilities management, procurement and communications/negotiations skills.

Getting too comfortable with hiring like for like is changing – and sometimes runs counter to the wider desire for internal innovation.

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) in Singapore hired a former army general who also had experience in technology and marketing when it saw the departure of a long-serving sustainability chief. Looking to other industries infuses much needed fresh thinking and experience in different environments. It is no different than hiring a turnaround CEO – those brought in to shift to business unusual. After all, embedding sustainability into mainstream business thinking is change management.

In 2017 Burger King did not only hire a former investment-banking analyst turned private-equity whiz kid under 40 as its CEO. He was expected to trim the fat and go for a lean but equally meaty headcount (!) and he did that with a different philosophy: “I believe in MWA – management by walking around,” he says. He engaged people well, and very quickly found empowering results.

Understanding the company’s priorities in sustainability should dictate the hiring process – whether looking near – or far. Getting that first step right can be daunting, and this is where a specialist consultancy can add long-term value. Whether you are looking for advice on your sustainability strategy, identifying the roles and skills you need to deliver your ESG ambitions, or even providing a starter-team, articulating your unique requirements will provide you with the best investment.


TPB can help you work out the skills and resources that you need to support your sustainability activities and ambitions. Get in touch for an informal chat about your ESG journey. 

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