What Does It Take To Be A Good Sustainability Manager?

 

After having a few conversations recently on this subject directly or indirectly around with peers, colleagues and mentees alike I thought this might be quite a ripe topic for sharing here on the blog.

So, I guess the question in the heading is rather a broad one – what do we mean by “good”? And what do we mean by sustainability manager or sustainability professional?

Well, by “good” let’s go really basic and say someone that has at the very least a reasonable level of competence in delivering on an expected set of outcomes, and perhaps even goes beyond that somewhat.

And when I say sustainability manager or sustainability professional I mean someone that has, as a primary function of their role, responsibility for sustainability strategy and/ or its implementation and driving towards certain sustainable outcomes within an organisation or infrastructure project in particular (given that that is my main point of reference!).

Okay, now we have that out of the way back to the question at hand – what makes a good sustainability manager?

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Aside from the desire to want to drive change, and see that good outcomes occur on your project from social, economic, governance and environmental perspectives, there are a few key defining traits in my experience. Here are my top picks, in no particular order:

 

 

(1) Some specialist knowledge in one or two fields (or perhaps more), a good spread of knowledge across a range of other fields (environmental sciences, social sciences, engineering, design etc) but most importantly the desire to continually learn 

Let’s go with the technical stuff first. Yes, it definitely helps to have a reasonably strong technical knowledge in one or perhaps two fields, but no that doesn’t automatically mean an environmental science-based discipline. You could be coming out of a communications and community engagement background, an engineering background, a systems background (I know an absolute gun sustainability manager from a systems background).

Having this solid foundation is really important, but so is the willingness to continually expand your knowledge and experience further across myriad fields so that (a) you know what you’re talking about in the context of a multi-faceted, multi-disciplined infrastructure project (!), (b) you know what other people are talking about, and (c) you can make even greater contributions to your project or organisation based on greater experience and knowledge.

(2) Ability to see the bigger picture

The ability to see the bigger picture and think strategically (as well as some of the finer details – see first point above re specialist knowledge) is an important attribute for a sustainability manager. You’ve got to understand that if one metaphorical lever is pulled, optimising a certain aspect of a project, say for example material use, that that can have a number of consequences cascading from that.

As a sustainability manager your ability to see and understand that things don’t happen in isolation – and your ability to communicate that with your project team – is essential. In fact….

(3) Top notch communication and interpersonal skills

In order to help people understand what sustainability means in the context of their particular project, what it means for them, the outcomes being striven for and how they are a part of the puzzle in creating certain outcomes, a good sustainability manager is also a very good listener, a very good question asker, a very good synthesiser of information and pretty handy at refining communication style to the particular person or audience communicating with.

And a sense of humour comes in pretty handy most of the time too.

(4) Ability to Believe in Yourself and Back Yourself

I have had sooooo many conversations with people working in sustainability management and in broader sustainability fields recently where one of my core pieces of advice has been “you can do it, you know. Back yourself”.

Given that sustainability management, particularly in infrastructure and construction, is a relatively new thing there are a number of people really looking to find their feet and find their way in this (and why I’m always happy to chat and help and mentor where I can). So I suppose this may go some of the way to explaining why I’m having some of these kinds of conversations with people.

More often than not I’m talking with folks that have got more than a solid idea about what should or should not be occurring on the project they’re on or the organisation they’re in, but perhaps don’t feel the sense of agency (real or perceived) or the ability or even the right (!) to do or suggest something. In that situation I say, yes, it might feel uncomfortable for you, scary even, but back yourself. You’re in your role for a reason. Someone believed that you could do the role. Believe that you can do it, and step right into it.

But do balance that with….

(5) Humility and knowing when to defer to greater authorities, take and seek advice

No person is an island, and no one of us individually can ever hope to know everything. Know and understand where the limits of your knowledge, experience and expertise lay and seek advice, thoughts and inputs on ideas, solutions and so on that lie outside of the boundaries. Even within those boundaries it doesn’t hurt to touch base with others for a bit of a sense check.

And when working with things like sustainability rating tools (ISCA, GreenStar etc), always always always read, re-read, check and double-check things like guidance or technical manuals – you don’t want you hard work to be dashed against the rocks because of an assumption. And if something is unclear seek opinions, but always check with the relevant authorities!

 

 

(6) Personal Resilience

Yup, if I had a dollar for every time someone did the equivalent of telling me to bugger off in a professional setting when commencing conversations around sustainability (in a totally professional way of course), then I would be a heinously rich woman, and living on my own personal Greek island in the Mediterranean somewhere…..

That kind of thing happens a lot less these days as the understanding of sustainability, sustainable development and sustainability in infrastructure and construction grows, but it happened a lot in the early days of my career. And that was, I have no doubt, as much about how I approached and messaged things as it was about the level of understanding of the person I was conversing with. More so, probably.

So, personal resilience and the ability to get back up and brush yourself down, re-calibrate and carry on working towards an outcome is a must. And it’s a must time and time again.

And as one develops in ones career the challenges, the types of conversations and discussions that once were challenges become that little bit easier with experience, and new ones present themselves. So flexing that personal resilience muscle, with the ability to keep working towards the required or desired outcomes is an essential trait of a good sustainability manager.

 

There are many, many more attributes that make up a “good” sustainability manager, and attributes that we all need to develop as things move, flex and change from project to project and as the industry matures (and I’m more than sure there are attributes that I’m still to learn about myself!). All the better for future blog posts on the subject!

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