VIEWS: The Three Skill Sets Every Sustainability Consultant Should Have

Dispatch from Jennifer Woofter

Each month I offer a webinar called Sustainability Consulting 101.  It’s an introduction to the sustainability consulting business and covers the types of consultancies, how to get your foot in the door, the value of a sustainability certificate/degree, and some of the resources that I use to stay on top of emerging sustainability issues.  It’s definitely the most popular webinar that we offer, in part because we break down what it takes to become a good sustainability consultant.

Note that I said a “good” sustainability consultant.  There are a LOT of sustainability consultants out there—yet very few of us rise to the level of “good” in my opinion.  Why?  Because being a good sustainability consultant requires three different skills sets and very, VERY few people have all of them.  Let’s look at each of them in turn:

Sustainability Skills

This is the obvious one.  You need to understand what sustainability is (and is not), the issues under the larger umbrella of sustainability, and the business case for those specific issues (energy management, water footprinting, carbon reduction, supply chain management, etc.).  You need to be able to explain cap-and-trade, and life cycle analysis, and the Global Reporting Initiative.  You should know the difference between SA8000 and the UN Global Compact and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and when each should be applied to a particular situation.  Basically, you have to be versed in the philosophy, practices, and tools of sustainability.

Consulting Skills

This is an often overlooked one, especially among the younger folks I talk to who are coming out of college with a “passion for sustainability”* and think that being excited and knowledgeable about climate change is enough to qualify them for the job.  To be a good sustainability consultant you need to explain where you can add value to a client’s processes.  You need to walk the fine line between independence and collaboration.  You must navigate office politics as an outsider.  You must guide a project without any real authority (after all, you are not “one of them”).  You must manage contract negotiations, expense reports, invoices, status reports, budgeting, coordination of teams…the list goes on.  This is a completely different skill set, and I wish more of the people in our industry had good project management skills, business development skills, and overall communication skills.  I think our clients would appreciate it.

Change Management Skills

Honest truth here: how many sustainability consultants out there can really deliver results?  I mean actually see a project through and have measurable “before” and “after” data to compare—to actually be able to quantify the outcomes of your consulting engagement.  Virtually none of us—and that’s because as consultants we are too often in the role of “prepare a report and walk away”.  We have often not been trained in the art and science of change management.  How do you motivate employees to change their behavior?  How do you get management to sign off on a big-budget item?  How do you institutionalize sustainability roles and responsibilities?  As sustainability consultants we often come up with GREAT recommendations, and then don’t actually see them through.  What’s more, we don’t do a good job of setting up systems to measure the before/after scenario.  There are a whole number of reasons for that (I see another blog entry coming up!), but the fact is that very few of our clients could answer a question like “how was productivity affected by working with Jane?” or “how much was sustainability performance impacts by the new training program recommended by your consultant”?  Instead we walk away with wishy-washy testimonials and hope that's enough to get the next client.

If you’re a company looking to hire a sustainability consultant, be sure you look for all three of these skill sets in the sustainability consultant(s) that you work with.  And if you’re a sustainability consultant, give yourself an honest assessment—how do I stack up in each of these areas? 

So now, dear readers, let me pose the question to you—is there another skill set that should be on this list that isn’t?

* One of my most hated phrases ever!

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