Careers in sustainability: talk to students of Exeter College

At the start of December I gave a careers talk to students of my old college. When I tweeted about it Oxford Careers Service asked me if they could add to their list of occupation areas. Below are my reflections, what it means for occupation areas and then the talk itself. 

I’m glad I’m not looking for my first job.
When I spoke with the current students they were all worried and downcast. One said to me that he’s been rejected from every application he’s made so far – and so has everyone else he knows. Today’s economic stagnation is a massive contrast to the boom times when I left university in the mid-90s. “You’ve got a warm body and you went to Oxford – here have a job!” I exaggerate a little, but it was pretty easy to get one of the  standard milkround jobs of ABC (accounting, banking and consultancy) plus the civil service.

So, it makes complete sense for any of the current students to choose ‘any port in a storm’ – get some time working under their belt, building transferable skills and experiences. I don’t envy their position at all.

Sustainability and occupations: embedding in existing, creating new specialists, and ‘new’ generalists
I sit on the Sustainability Committee of the ICAEW, Europe’s largest accounting institute. It is taking years of persistence from the in-house team, but sustainability is getting into the core of the institute: the exams; the curricula; the post-qualification training; the communications to members; the rhetoric on what business is for; and so on. I know of similar attempts in advertising, engineering, law and management consulting.

There is a process of embedding into existing occupations which goes a little something like this. First some sustainability issues impinge on the existing domain of an occupation. Some pioneering individuals realise it is going to be important, but most don’t know that they don’t know about the issues. There’s a frustrating period where the pioneers are pushing ahead but no one else thinks it is important to follow. Then there are enough people with enough awareness of issues that are relevant enough. Suddenly, things begin to take off. (See the Six Steps of Significant Change for more on this process.)

My 4 years with sat on the sustainability committee of the ICAEW fits with this pattern (except, perhaps, the take off hasn’t quite happened yet!). Also, my experience of leading businesses is that sustainability is taken up / pushed to the people in the important functions around the company (marketing, operations, supply chain etc), and the central ‘sustainability’ function becomes a coordinator of change.

Different occupations are at different places. But pretty much all will need to embed the relevant bits of sustainability over the coming decade.

Then there are new specialisms popping up. These tend to be deep technical skills on a relatively new area – a solar PV engineer, a climate change policy wonk, or a sustainability behaviour change marketeer. (I’m told of one leading company that has a team of at least 10 of that latter specialism.)  We can expect more specialties within occupations to emerge.

Finally, there is my job (and my Forum colleagues). I have specialisms (qualified accountant, sustainability and business strategy). But the focus of my role is using those specialisms to create change for sustainability in the round. So, I’m expected to be on top of a massive range of issues and thinking, and help people understand how the latest developments affect them. This makes me a sustainability generalist. Perhaps Forum for the Future is a unique place, and there are few other roles in the world that require a sustainability generalists (which puts me in both a strong and weak position). I suspect there will always be a need for someone to join the dots on sustainability, even if that need is not always acknowledged or paid for.

The talk to students of Exeter College, Oxford.

Hello and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you! I’ve been asked to tell you  about the work I do and why it’s intellectually/personally/professionally satisfying, so you can avoid falling into the standard ABC of accounting, banking and consultancy. I’m particularly pleased to speak about this because I was involved in the first ever Alternative Careers Fair all the way back in 1996 [Note: can’t find any internet links!]. So, a topic close to my heart.

Let’s start with what I do today.
I work at Forum for the Future, a sustainable development charity that works in partnership with companies and government bodies to create a sustainable future. I believe that ‘sustainability’ issues are already huge and will become more important. We will spending the next decades creating a low-carbon world. Sustainability issues are driving the context in which all of us have to forge our careers. They will dominate your working lives.

My story goes a little like this.
I did a Masters in Physics at Exeter College but spent most of my time on what were then known as development and environment issues. I was part of Third World First (now called People and Planet) and of that first Alternative Careers Fair.

Then I had a bit of an alternative careers fail. I didn’t want to be a burden on my parents, and I wanted a solid professional qualification. So I became an accountant with  PricewaterhouseCoopers. My friends accused me of selling my soul; I said I had mortgaged it.

Not surprisingly I didn’t enjoy my time at PwC. I realised that, fundamentally, whoever does the accounts or audit should come up with the same answer. And that means training people to conform, and avoid too much critical thinking or creativity.

I needed a path out, so I did a Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath. *So many people found the course to be life-changing – generating an invaluable set of skills and connections – that we wrote a book. The course has relocated under a slightly different name to Ashridge – see here).

In the last weeks of that course no fewer than eight people sent me a job advert to be a green accountant at Forum for the Future. I applied and go it. In the last 8 years I have had a new role in Forum every two years – sustainability accountant, Head of Business Strategies and now Deputy Director.

What do I find satisfying.
One quote from someone I worked with PepsiCo can explain:

“I could not be more thrilled with our experience with Forum. It was the first time at PepsiCo that we have taken such a formalized and rigorous long-term view of our business risks and opportunities.

Forum helped us see what we knew in our heart…that the magnitude of the global crises we face cannot be solved in the short-term. Similarly, companies that will be successful in 20 years are those who recognize and respect the long term trends, and who are nimble enough to address them.

The design and activation of Forum’s process is, in a word, comprehensive. They leave no stone unturned during their expert interviews, desk research, and field validation. We now think strategically, LONG term, thanks to Forum.”

I’m satisfied by: making a difference; contributing the sum of human knowledge; and breaking new ground in a vital area.

What does it mean for you?

  1. You can mortgage your soul (that is, it is possible to use corporates for training and credibility) but you need to be careful you don’t get sucked in, with ever-narrowing horizon and dependent on the salary.
  2. Follow your passion, with an eye to what your future self might want.
  3. Sustainability is an immature field, so there is no established career path yet. This is both a blessing and a curse – you can forge something new but the onus is on you to make that new path. There is greater professionalism on the way, with specialisms and associated qualifications.
  4. Everyone has a choice about whether to go deep and specialise or go wide as a connector and intellectual omnivore. Your choice will depend on your skills and personality.
  5. Internships are common routes for credibility.
  6. the normal rules of job hunting and career development apply.
    1. what are you good at and what value is that to anyone else?
    2. what weakness do you need to make sure you get to a minimum level?
    3. how does your next step build the options you want?

Finally… There has always been something to be done. In the last century people fought fascism, rebuilt Western Europe  and saw off communism. Building a sustainable word is the task of our generation. It will be tough, but it will also be a great life’s work for us all. Thank you.


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