In recent months I’ve had a number of conversations with young professionals looking to make their first forays into their careers in sustainability. I’ve also had similar conversations with others seeking advice in making a career change from professions broadly allied with infrastructure across into the sustainability profession within the infrastructure and construction sector.
For me, having a background and experience that also includes coaching (particularly in career change), mentoring and teaching adults, it’s something I’m more than happy to do – sit, have a coffee, listen, ask questions and discuss.
For those out there contemplating a move into sustainability, particularly within infrastructure design, development, delivery and management, I thought I’d share, in just a very brief format, some of those “pearls of wisdom”, or rather things I’ve experienced and benefited from (or learnt from the hard way!).
(1) Follow your heart, but let your head into the equation too and don’t restrict yourself. We often hear the mantra these days that you should be following your heart into your dream occupation and if you’re not doing that right now then you’re wasting your time. Okay, perhaps that’s a little extreme and exaggerated on my part in terms of some of the advice that’s out there, but it can often feel like that’s what it’s saying. And that type of advice can leave one feeling frustrated or even inadequate if you’re not sure what that exact “dream” is.
My view is this: yes, have an idea of the area you’d like to work in, but leave yourself open and receptive to opportunities as they present themselves. And definitely test things out – you may have an idea that you really want to work in community engagement, for example. Look for and take up opportunities to test out work in that sphere.
Just because you try something out doesn’t mean you have to stick with it forever. Yes, be lead by what moves you (the heart bit), but also think (the head bit) about things as an experiment. You may be lucky enough to have found your niche from the get go. However, oftentimes starting work in a particular field can lead to all sorts of new and interesting doors being opened that you’d perhaps not even contemplated previously.
(2) Create your own opportunities. As much as we’d like it sometimes, willing and wishing something to occur is not a great strategy for making it so! Get out talking to people, make connections in the industry or sector that you’d like to be working in. As per the advice above, opportunities can come from some of the most unusual or previously unthought of quarters.
Reaching out to unknown people can be a little daunting, but people are generally receptive if you’ve made the effort to connect. And I don’t just mean an impersonal LinkedIn invite, I mean a personalised email or phone call (or both) if you’re able to track down their contact details. Start building some genuine relationships in the areas you’re looking to work in. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find at least one person who’s willing to help you navigate at least part of your new journey and open some doors for you.
(3) Be yourself. Yes, be professional. Yes, be confident (even if you’re as nervous as all heck and need to fake it). Above all be yourself – you know what feels right to you and what doesn’t. Avoid attempting to change yourself fundamentally to fit to something such as a particular organisation, or someone. Yes, there are always things that we can do to change ourselves for the better in terms of how we approach our work. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about if an opportunity means significantly shifting away from you being you, or asking you to do something which doesn’t fit with your own personal values then you may want to seriously question whether it’s the right opportunity.
There will be opportunities (emphasis on plural there) that will relish the “you” that you bring to a particular organisation or project.
(4) Experience is great. Attitude is greater. And following on from the point above, realise that the “right” employers/ colleagues/ project partners are looking for aptitude and attitude, particularly when it’s clear you’re in the early phases of your career or are making a change. Yes, sure experience in a particular field is great, very helpful indeed, no doubt about it. But to get that experience, you need to work in it….. (yes, seems obvious when it’s said like that eh? Apparently not always obvious to some!).
Skills can be learnt, knowledge can be sought, experience can be gained. And that’s all, more or less, a matter of time. It will come. But what makes it come, and with the extra-special sprinkles on top, is your attitude in and aptitude for seeking those things and contributing to your organisation/ project/ sector and more.
And if you’re making a career change, don’t shy away from that fact. Embrace it and make it a point of difference. There will undoubtedly be a lot of very useful skills and experiences that you can transfer from a current or previous industry/ sector/ career into your new sustainability career. There will be differing, new and interesting perspectives that you could bring to bear on a role that perhaps others would not be able to.
As someone who employs staff from time to time and advises on recruitment within my current role, attitude, aptitude and someone’s broader skill and experience set are elements that feature strongly in what I like to take a look at.
If anyone would like to chat further (totally free – no strings attached etc!), as I said above I’m always more than happy to do so – please feel free to make contact via the details on the Contact page.