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Trends in Sustainable HR: Competencies, Frameworks and Org Charts

How can HR professionals make sustainability leadership scalable?

Submitted by: Shannon Houde

Posted: Jan 15, 2014 – 09:45 AM EST

Tags: sustainability, hr, frameworks, org charts, organizational design, acre, nike, recruitment, leadership, professional development


By Shannon Houde

Every hiring manager is looking to recruit top talent. Many organizations are looking to hire sustainability professionals because they hope it will result in competitive advantage, but they don’t know what they are looking for in terms of competencies. At the same time, many sustainability leaders are emerging within organizations but unable to find a clear path that encourages innovation and development.

Whether a sustainability role is filled internally or externally, this lack of clarity around the sustainability profession creates unnecessary challenges for the job seeker, the practitioner and the hiring manager.

So how can HR professionals make a difference? Start by building a competency framework that fosters sustainability leadership at all job levels and functions—i.e., embed sustainability into professional development targets across the company. Despite the quick evolution of the sustainability field, there is no universally recognized list of core competencies or non-traditional key performance indicators (KPIs) to prove an employee’s value to a company's job-applicantsbottom line. While this is certainly a challenge for the jobseeker and sustainability go-getter, it also presents exciting opportunities for HR and sustainability leaders to redefine professional development.

Identifying Sustainable HR Needs

As Business in the Community points out, by focusing on agreed behaviors, HR departments can better on-board and develop future leaders in the field and help them to strive to make a difference on the triple bottom line while also growing professionally. Frameworks also help non-HR staffers to better understand what is expected of them and to build personal development plans, so why not for sustainability?

But first we need to map the core skills, knowledge and traits that are required for each level and technical function within sustainability. We reached out to the market to find out. The consensus: "It depends."

According to Andy Cartland of Acre, “It depends at what level an individual is operating. For instance, if you asked about which core competencies IT professionals should be developing, the answer would be programming/design/technical skills. But you’d expect directors to be effective managers of people and managers of change programs. The same logic applies to the varied technical and managerial roles within the sustainability agenda.”

Since there are more and more sustainability jobs and functions within traditional commercial roles, the competencies required to achieve success depend on one’s hiring needs or career track. “Rather than thinking of skills, knowledge and attitudes, it is more useful to discuss leadership qualities, management skills and reflexive abilities,” states a CR report by Ashridge.

“In sustainability, there is rarely a mandate to do what needs to get done,” says Jennie Gabraith, chair of the ICRS working group, “so practitioners must be able to influence different people with different agendas.” Their framework will focus on guiding job seekers coming out of academia and into the commercial or NGO sectors, people entering the sustainability profession from another function, and BITC-sustainability-achievement-chartemployers looking to hire.

How to Work with HR on Organizational Design

Identifying the key competencies lays a solid foundation for a framework. Once that's done, it’s time to think strategically about how to structure sustainability within the organization. Will there be a designated centralized sustainability team or will it be embedded into other commercial roles?

Ideally, there would be a mix of both.

Ms. Gabraith elaborates, “The value of having a core department thinking about this is that they are bringing in valuable insight from the outside world. However, sustainability champions working alone are never going to be game changing.” Someone needs to be responsible for owning and driving sustainability initiatives to make them a reality, but an organization also needs individuals who are committed to having positive impacts on the environment and society while making money.

However, just as important as the structure of sustainability roles is where they are positioned. For example, at Nike, sustainability starts in R&D and is diffused throughout their entire value chain and corporate strategy. In an ideal future, more companies will work to embed this agenda across all functions with employees being rewarded professionally for viewing their job through a sustainability lens. Though, very few companies have it ingrained throughout the organization.

In fact, according to Acre’s 2012 CR and Sustainability Salary Survey:

“Just over 35 percent of respondents working in-house described their team as a standalone sustainability or corporate responsibility department within their company, while 28 percent said it fell within corporate affairs and 20 percent under marketing/communications.”

Measuring Against Frameworks for Professional Development

Why haven't sustainability roles, which started as add-ons to regular day jobs (“champions”), and eventually evolved into defined positions such as energy manager, director of social performance, and chief sustainability officer, begun to disappear, admittedly the ideal objective for the sustainability sector?

For sustainability to be truly embedded, we must enforce a review process that takes sustainability metrics into account. However, this is largely uncharted territory. As a recent ISSP report explains, “While many have made progress in addressing the issues at the level of policies and values, relatively fewer have begun to address the challenge of developing new business metrics or performance measures that explicitly account for the social and environmental impacts.” Only a handful has started to integrate corporate responsibility competencies into leadership frameworks.

By defining a clear development track against which performance can be measured, there is less of a chance that sustainability will revert to being a non-strategic agenda. The ICRS is hoping that their competency framework will help others map what this journey could look like, identify gaps in skills and knowledge, and learn about what other people’s careers have looked like. They are also including recognition frameworks for tracking and measurement of achievements.

The Value of a Sustainability Professional

But, how do sustainability professionals continue to make themselves valuable to companies as sustainability becomes more embedded?

Maggie Brown of Amida Recruitmentsustainability-professional-holding-globe offers:

“The most brilliant sustainability stories all involve drastic and oftentimes risky innovation processes. There will always be a need for people who can re-design, lead and implement change. [However,] you will need to think beyond risk mitigation, compliance and the introduction of systems and processes to help measure sustainable development. You will need to spot trends and opportunities and to develop strategic and collaborative partnerships with other organizations.”

Having worked with more than 3,000 sustainability practitioners over the past 10 years I recommend in addition, a focus on the following key competencies:

  1. Bravery and resilience
  2. Ability to balance global and local perspectives
  3. Innovative and systems thinking
  4. Influencing and negotiating
  5. Engaging others in the on the journey on their terms

These competencies will help practitioners become sustainability leaders and afford hiring managers the opportunity to co-design competency frameworks for the sustainability career track.

More Information:

For more on how HR can hire, retain, structure and build capacity of top sustainability talent and leaders, visit Walk of Life Consulting. You can also follow Walk of Life on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to receive our latest updates.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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