Leadership
Corporate Sustainability Practitioners:
Roles Have Changed — Has Your Job Description?

“If life were easy, it wouldn’t be difficult.” — Kermit the Frog

As a sustainability professional, I am drawn to this Muppet wisdom. Over the many years I’ve worked in the field as an advisor and strategist, I’ve witnessed a slow but steady awakening on the part of organizations to the real challenges of long-term sustainability. It takes intention, commitment – and pivots.

I first heard the term “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) in the early ‘90s. At the time, I was a board member of a regional financial institution. Back then, our staff were focused on philanthropy and that was about it for CSR.

By the 2000s, our staff were measuring, reducing and reporting on the organization’s negative social and environmental impacts. They built a portfolio of sustainable products and social impact investments to make a positive difference in society. By 2010, though I was no longer on its board, the organization had fully embedded its social mission throughout its business model and was reaping the financial and brand benefits for its efforts. Over the course of twenty years, the organization had undergone two pivots, as did the professionals stewarding the sustainability transitions.

Other leading companies, such as the transformational companies I document in this CBSR research, were going through similar shifts. I was fortunate to help a number of them position their organizations to transform both their internal operating models and external operating contexts to become more sustainable. As these organizations pivoted, so did their CSR teams. Proactive sustainability practitioners took the initiative to update their job descriptions and their department mandates to reflect this evolution from internal, operational priorities such as energy efficiency and waste management towards more external and integration priorities, involving departmental and stakeholder collaboration.

Here’s a summary of my observations on these job pivots:

Transitioning to next-generation sustainability roles

Looking back thirty years, it is possible to see that as companies advance along the maturity continuum of sustainability and corporate responsibility, they evolve from a compliance and operational model to a senior-level, strategic and external collaboration focus in sustainability. Business and societal benefits drivers impel sustainability practitioners to evolve their job descriptions to meet the priorities and requirements of their organizations.

This matrix describes some of the typical shifts in job descriptions of sustainability practitioners as they transition to help their companies succeed in sustainability and business.

Three of the most significant changes I have witnessed include:

  1. Shift from inward, internal roles to external-facing roles;
  2. Focus on operations to a focus on the company eco-system;
  3. Transition from doing the work to supporting functions to embed sustainability in their mandates.

These shifts reinforce the findings from my global scan of the sustainability competencies managers will need to steward their organizations to a sustainable future.

Notably, these transformations don’t just apply to individual jobs, but to entire sustainability departments where those jobs live. Once sustainability has matured in an organization, entire teams undergo a similar transition. They become enablers, supporting their colleagues across the organization to foster sustainable innovation.

When it comes to evolving sustainability, Kermit might say, “If transformation was easy, it wouldn’t be difficult.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do

Ask yourself, “Does my job description define what I’ve being doing for the past five years or does it define what I’ll be doing for the next 5 years?” If the former, it’s time to take another look and book a meeting with your manager. And check out this Conference Board of Canada paper on “Next Generation CSR and Sustainability Jobs” to provide the fuel you need for this conversation and essential transition.

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