January 21, 2020

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Inexperienced But Passionate: 4 Essential Tips for CSR & Sustainability Job Seekers

Consider the steps below as guidelines to keep in mind before starting a job search in any field.


By Tim Mohin

Editor's Note: Tim Mohin’s new book Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations has been heralded as "the ultimate insider's guide, from someone who has been at the front lines of corporate change-making at some of the world's biggest companies," and an "essential reading for anyone who wants to build a meaningful career."

Because of an enthusiastic response to a recent news release introducing the book – with multiple queries coming in and shares aCSRoss social media channels – Mohin has agreed to answer some of the questions he received from CSRwire readers and the students of the Applied Corporate Responsibility Class at Harvard University, one of the first cohorts to read the book, in a blog series on Talkback.

Through these blogs, Mohin will attempt to demystify the field of CSR and sustainability and offer bite size tips and lessons from his experience for current and aspiring CSR professionals.

In Part 3, Tim takes on a question from Kokoevi Sossouvi, a student from Harvard University’s Applied Corporate Responsibility Course, about advice to young graduates who would like to work in corporate responsibility.

What advice would you give to a young graduate wanting to enter the corporate responsibility field?

As a board member for Net Impact, I get asked this question a lot. In fact, the Net Impact annual conference is coming up quickly and I would expect that a healthy percentage of the nearly 3,000 participants have this question on their mind too. 

When we met at Harvard, you made the point that a lot of the information in my book is applicable beyond the corporate responsibility field – which I considered high praise! This answer will also have broader application for new graduates looking for jobs. Consider the steps below as guidelines to keep in mind before starting a job search in any field. As the father of two young adults, I can sympathize with the struggles that young people face in landing a job these days, much less the ideal job that aligns with your values and offers you the opportunity to make a difference. 

1. Start with a bit of self-reflection and analysis.

If you were completely honest with yourself, would you be best suited for a more technical role (e.g., supply chain auditor), a less technical role (e.g., communications) or a managerial position (e.g., self reflectioncorporate responsibility director or vice president)? Use your self-analysis to filter -- or at least prioritize -- the jobs in your search.

2. Are you searching at the right company?

Next, think about the companies in your search. I categorize companies as “2x4” (those who have been whacked and now see the value in CSR) and “epiphany” (where CSR is an integral part of the company’s mission and business model).

Almost any job in an “epiphany” company will give you exposure to corporate responsibility – which can open up many job possibilities – but these companies are typically overwhelmed with résumés and the competition is fierce. Corporate responsibility jobs within “2x4” companies are more focused and thus less plentiful, but there are many more companies in this category.

3. Consider the maturity of the corporate responsibility program within your target companies.

More mature programs are likely to have more jobs, but the jobs will also be more specialized and thus constrained to certain aspects of the program. Jobs in less mature programs will be more entrepreneurial but also more ambiguous and chaotic. In these programs you may find yourself designing the strategy and developing the programs. If you go to work in one of these programs, you should be comfortable dealing with ambiguity and being self-directed.

4. Be wary of under-funded CSR programs.

Another factor to watch out for in your job search is under-funded programs. As mentioned above, many corporate responsibility departments are small – often just a leader and one or two people. puzzleThese roles will require you to cover a wide swath of the issues and responsibilities outlined in my book. To the extent feasible, and in the interest of your own self-preservation, you should seek clarity on the scope, responsibilities, and objectives in these roles.

Now that you've narrowed down your search, here are a few tips that will help you in the selection process:

1. Passion

I am continually surprised when I interview candidates and they don’t take the opportunity to tell me about why they would be thrilled to work in the role. The interview is your chance to express your passion for the work and you should absolutely volunteer this information. It conveys a sense of engagement to the hiring manager. As I discuss in Chapter 11, people who see their work as a cause are far more likely to go the extra mile.

2. Prove your passion

Show concrete evidence of your passion. It’s not nearly enough to go into an interview and say you care about the environment if the most you can claim is that you recycle your soda cans. Volunteering – in a way that shows real commitment and produces real accomplishments – goes a long way to making this case. Hiring managers tend to be skeptical about candidates who say they are committed to an issue but cannot present evidence that they support the cause.

3. Experience

If you are entering the workforce, a CSR-related internship will give you a definite boost in the job hunt. Hiring managers like to see you’ve taken this step to gain experience in the field. If you don’t have a directly related experience, draft a résumé and cover letter that shows how your experiences can specifically add value to the CSR role in question.

4. Research

In the Internet age, it astonishes me how many candidates show up with limited knowledge of the company, the role, and the hiring manager. In a couple of minutes, you can find out reams of data online. In a few more minutes, you could probably link up with a few insiders and get the scoop about the job and company.

Someone once asked me if I was put off when candidates reveal that they have researched my professionalbackground during an interview. For me, it is a net positive: it means that the candidate has done his or her homework and come prepared. While most hiring managers will be flattered if you talk about their accomplishments, don’t overdo it – remember, the hiring manager is assessing you.

5. Practice your pitch

There are a few standard techniques that interviewers will use to assess candidates and, since you have only one hour or less to make an impression, it makes sense to practice your story and your responses in advance.

A typical question on how you manage ambiguity could be: “Tell me about a time when you were given a vague assignment. What was the assignment, what did you do to clarify the goals and how did it turn out?” This question is an example of the “behavioral interviewing” technique used by a lot of companies. There are references you can find on the web about this technique that can help you prepare. Select a few of the skill areas that you think are relevant for the role and develop your examples in advance.

Also develop opening remarks that tell your story: who you are, your passion for the company and the role, and how your experience and personal capabilities will add value. I recommend practicing in a mock interview with a friend – preferably one who has experience interviewing candidates.

Finally, Some Addvice for Career Changers

A 2008 Ethical Performance salary survey of CSR professionals in Europe showed that more than half had changed careers to enter the field. If you’re a career-changer, highlight how your skills and previous experience can transfer into the new, CSR-focused position.

While at Apple I hired a person with no CSR experience (but loads of passion for the role) from the supply chain organization specifically for her skills, contacts, and experience in managing suppliers. She turned out to be the perfect match for the job. So show that you bring skills to the table that can advance the needs of the program while telling the story of why CSR is your calling.

For career-changers in particular, come to the interview with a compelling story of why your values have led you to change the course of your career toward corporate responsibility. They'll add personality to your resume and leave a lasting impression on the interviewer.

More from Tim Mohin:

How is CSR Funded & Connected to the Corporate Brand?

Defining Success for a "CSR Professional": Driving Yourself Out of a Job?

Changing Business from the Inside Out: How to Pursue a Career in CSR and Sustainability

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

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