3 Soft Skills Every Sustainability Leader Needs

By: Lily Mathews | July 19, 2013

Excelling in a sustainability role requires an extensive science background, right? Not quite. The going notion may be that technical skills will help you tackle environmental impact at work - but that's only part of the picture. For the majority of really effective sustainability leaders, soft skills are far more critical to getting the job done. So how do you know if you've got what it takes? Whether you're looking to initiate conversation inside your company or spearhead a new program, here are three soft skills every sustainability leader should develop.

1. Systems Thinking

Only the people who know the systems, who know the levers, will be able to make the changes. You can't just go in with the green glasses on, says Leilani Latimer of Sabre Holdings. Business and society don't function on different tracks, so why should their associated decision-making? A systems-thinking leader can identify the greatest opportunities for influence when the going gets tough, as well as the risks facing consumers, suppliers, and shareholders.

You're on track if...you're an agile-minded thinker who sees the big picture while connecting seemingly unrelated dots.

2. Influential Communication

What’s obvious to you (what do you mean you don't understand why responsible supply chains are so critical?!) may not always be obvious to others. The trick is learning how to translate your best ideas for the audiences who can help you get them implemented. Influential communicators have the ability to navigate these tricky waters, using their message to mobilize others and drive change. For those who’ve mastered the skill, it’s well worth it. “A lot of what I do is inspire team members to get involved and enthralled, which ultimately makes my job easier,” says Paul Murray, who has led sustainability efforts at Herman Miller and now Shaw Industries Group, Inc. By coupling stellar organizational awareness and top-notch interpersonal skills, you’re well on your way to becoming a leader in the field.

You’re on track if…you can speak the language of many audiences, whether discussing ideas one-on-one, in a department meeting, or at a public community forum.

3. Peripheral Vision

True talk: leaders with peripheral vision possess a natural curiosity for their work, and that perspective pays off. Says Kirsten Olsen Cahill of Google.org, “There’s always a generic answer, but the really good solutions come out of where there is a great need.” Workers with peripheral vision always know what’s happening in the broader world of their industry, allowing them to quickly adapt to emerging issues and stay ahead of the curve.

You’re on track if…you’ve cultivated a strong understanding of key social and environmental issues, and have a network of internal and external stakeholders that can help craft appropriate response strategies for emerging issues.

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