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Sustainability & Social Responsibility

Sustainable Skills


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

July/August 2011, eSide Supply Management Vol. 4, No. 4

A study of 400-plus sustainability professionals drills down on the aptitudes they believe will ensure success in their roles.

The most recent research offering from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) — The Sustainability Professional: 2010 Competency Survey Report — spotlights the skills sustainability professionals regard as most critical to career success. They also highlight some of their biggest challenges.

Over a nine-month period, ISSP asked nearly 400 sustainability professionals one overarching question: What should a sustainability professional know how to do? The respondents mainly work in North America (79 percent) and are highly educated. Ninety-three percent have at least a bachelor's degree, 60 percent have a master's degree, 10 percent have a doctoral degree and 19 percent have completed a sustainability certificate. (Another 20 percent are actively pursuing some sort of job-related training.)

Consultants make up 36 percent of the response group, and 56 percent of all the sustainability professionals surveyed work in organizations with fewer than 100 employees. Nearly half — 47 percent — of U.S.-based sustainability professionals earned between US$50,000 and $99,999 per year.

When asked, their most important challenges, the two most-often cited responses were promoting an understanding of the value of sustainability and dealing with climate change and related energy needs, respectively. Respondents also cited gaining the support of management and customers, proving fiscal viability and attracting funding as important issues they face.

To address these challenges, a handful of skill sets are vital, according to the study.

Change Management Skills

To ensure success in the sustainability professional role, change management skills topped the list. Specifically, these include having the ability to deal with changing business priorities, overcome resistance to change, redesign products and services to be more sustainable, and ensure environmental compliance.

Soft Skills
Green Skills: Light bulb shaped like a head with linked gears inside.

Survey respondents cited soft skills — in particular, written and verbal communication skills — as much more important than hard skills in the sustainability professional role. "[They] will continue to be needed in the future because they are necessary for bringing about transformational change," the report states.

With regard to communication skills, specifically, respondents say the most critical aptitudes include communicating with internal and external stakeholders, problem-solving, inspiring and motivating others, flexibility/adaptability and consensus-building.

"Sustainability professionals recognize the enormous task of bringing about change, and all that it implies in terms of managing stakeholders, adapting organizational systems and building support and commitment," according to the report. "As a result, 'soft' skills are deemed of especially high value by the group as a whole."

Hard Skills

Although not at the top of the list, respondents indicate that hard skills will continue to be needed in the future "because they are necessary for enabling a strategic approach, competing in a business climate, are fundamental to change, and/or allow performance tracking."

Narrowing it down further, sustainability professionals make particularly good use of skills in the areas of strategic planning, project management and systems thinking. Demonstrating financial viability and ROI are also considered important enablers of change.

Although scientific expertise and sustainability accounting/reporting were deemed important, these hard skills tend to be more important to larger organizations than to smaller ones.

Technical Skills

In the area of technical skills, sustainability professionals indicate greenhouse gas auditing and action planning are critical today, and will continue to be in the years ahead. "While it is a specialty skill area in itself, organizations in all sectors will need help in managing, mitigating and monitoring greenhouse gases," according to the report.

What's Next?

When asked to look ahead at the sustainability professional's role five years from now, respondents said soft skills — whether applied inside the organization or in dealings with suppliers and partners — will continue to be instrumental for inciting change and transformation. Also expected to increase in need is the ability to tackle climate and energy issues.

On the other hand, the ability to promote understanding of sustainability was expected to decrease in importance in five years — likely because environmental responsibility will become ingrained in standard approaches to conducting business.

To download the full report, visit the ISSP website.

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. To contact this author, please send an e-mail to

For more articles and resources on sustainability and the supply chain, visit the ISM articles database.

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