Tips from the Field: A Survival Guide for Sustainability Professionals

Last Monday, CBEY and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development hosted a conversation on how MBA programs might train future sustainability professionals. The event was held in conjunction with the School of Management’s Global Faculty Network Week on Sustainability Leadership and moderated by Professor Brad Gentry. Three seasoned panelists, before a crowd of global business school professors and administrators, as well as a smattering of budding MBAs, shared their wisdom from years of experience in sustainability leadership roles.

Dr. Terry Yosie, President and CEO of the World Environment Center cited the importance of Disruption; Christine Bader (SOM ’00), author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, called out her experience with Failure; and Kevin Moss, Head of Net Good, BT, described for the audience the essential role of Resilience.

For future MBAs attending the panel in search of a concrete skillset, perhaps a few words to draw on for the next resume update, these ideas may have felt slightly abstract. But the discussion still offered inspiration for any emerging professional willing to take on the challenging frontier that sustainability presents.


Terry Yosie described this era as one “of unprecedented change.” Our world is increasingly connected, and with these connections comes complexity. A business is now forced to consider its impacts well beyond the scope of its balance sheet. The private sector hires social responsibility and sustainability professionals to help adapt to new standards. However, Yosie believes that both “the promise and the shortcoming” of the sustainability field is its ability to identify a system-level changer—a feat with great potential, but one that it has yet to accomplish. Someone, or some new idea, needs to emerge that will be disruptive enough to cause a momentous shift in the way we do business. Yosie suggested that MBA programs can foster this productive disruption by turning curricula away from the shareholder value model and toward a model that reconnects with companies’ corporate charters, which are often built upon a broad social purpose.


When Christine Bader reflects on her work trying to make BP a better global citizen, she sees failure. After years of heading innovative projects that helped BP tread more lightly in neighboring communities, Bader witnessed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and felt her efforts had been in vain. From this experience, and from exploring the work of her professional peers, Bader has maintained motivation by acknowledging that incremental change, though seemingly negligible to the outside world, often requires a tremendous amount of internal alignment. We must take heart that any work aimed at moving the needle is good work.

That said, there are identifiable tools that will make this kind of work more effective. For instance, the level at which sustainability is integrated into a corporation needs to be standardized; one way to do this is by developing a Universal Declaration of Corporate Social Responsibility, much like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which has acted as a guideline for corporations trying to attain an acceptable internal standard for the human impact of their operations.


Kevin Moss addressed a fear that many in the sustainability field are likely to face: how do you know if you are actually making the changes you set out to? Is your company instead treating you as a “pressure release valve” that allows it to go about business as usual under the banner of sustainability? According to Moss, in order to be a successful sustainability professional, you must have the resilience to address this constant challenge; this can require pushing hard—sometimes making your position an uncomfortable one to be in. Moss stressed that sustainability must come from a value-based belief in it, which needs to be integrated deep in a company, ideally by the individuals inside of it. Moss offered a nice bridge between the words of Yosie and Bader: until that deep, value-based integration happens, disruptive sustainability professionals are going to meet resistance to even incremental changes. They will need to be resilient to continue on their path.

Yosie, Bader, and Moss do not have easy jobs. They will be the first to admit that sustainability is hard, far from a fluffy field for the meek. The profession forces you to ride the pendulum between optimism and pessimism, and those who succeed learn to draw inspiration from both ends of the emotional spectrum.

A full recording of the panel discussion, “The Skills Needed to Lead on Sustainability at 2020,” can be viewed online here.

Sarah Bolthrunis is an MBA/MESc joint-degree student (‘16) at Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her academic and professional interests focus on coastal adaptation to climate change impacts. Specifically, her summer research is in assessing the economic risks faced by coastal energy infrastructure due to sea level rise and storm surge. In her free time, Sarah enjoys marathon training and vegan nutrition.

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