How to Successfully Transition to a Career in Sustainability

While roles in sustainability are competitive, the good news is that the numbers of positions are growing and there is no longer one career path. An MBA can be a valuable tool that will help you transition to this path or build on relevant experiences you may already have. Seven years after my MBA, I’m working for a global Fortune 500 company driving corporate sustainability strategy. My MBA was invaluable in giving me the skills and opportunities to transition to this career, and building a strong alumni network that I tap into to this day!

What is a career in sustainability?

There are many types of careers in sustainability and social responsibility. The careers that people think of most often are roles within Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility departments at companies, where you work on developing and implementing sustainability business strategies. This is becoming more popular and most major companies have at least a small team of professionals working reducing environmental impacts through improved environmental management.

There are also a lot of other “green” careers that exist. There are companies with sustainability-related missions, such as clean energy companies, climate change organizations, or sustainable investment firms. Within those firms the normal spectrum of positions exists, from Finance and Accounting to Operations and HR. Increasingly, there are also opportunities to incorporate sustainability into traditional business roles. For example, a role in Supply Chain Management could incorporate environmental factors into how a company manages its supply chain, or a Marketing role could focus on promoting how the company is dedicated to sustainable business. Most large consulting firms also have sustainability divisions within their main consulting practices where they work on a range of environmental issues.

How will an MBA prepare me for a career in sustainability?

An MBA will give you the strong business skills needed for many roles, especially one in corporate sustainability. To be successful in this field, you need to understand how to build an effective business case for any new sustainability project or initiative, which requires skills from across the MBA spectrum, including finance, operations, marketing and organizational change. An MBA will also make you more effective as you will better understand the “language of business” to help communicate and get buy-in for your initiatives within an organization.

What degree should you get?

There are many types of programs that will help you get a post-MBA career in sustainability. Many schools offer dual-degree programs where you receive your MBA and a Masters from a sustainability- focused program, often with a second focus on natural resources. These programs are great for providing more exposure to sustainability through extended coursework, and often have passionate alumni networks. Some schools offer sustainability concentrations or certificates within the traditional MBA program, where you incorporate it into your electives and curriculum.

MBA programs also have different focus areas. Some schools specialize in, energy, non-profit or sustainability management. Look for programs that align closely with what you want to do after your MBA.

If you are looking to go into a traditional role and integrate sustainability, then you should look at programs that focus on those core skills while still offering classes or clubs that focus on sustainability. For example, if you want to work in renewable energy finance, look at schools with strong finance programs that could also provide opportunities to work on renewable energy projects through action-based learning opportunities, classes, or internships. These roles value strong financial and analytical skills, and an MBA is definitely valued and sometimes required for upper management roles.

What do I look for when choosing an MBA program?

In addition to looking at the availability of certificates or dual degree programs, there are a number of other ways that an MBA can help prepare you for a career in sustainability:

Project Experience: Many companies will value real experience with sustainability projects. Look for schools that will give you real-world experience, whether it’s through clubs, special projects or internships. If the school you ultimately choose doesn’t have these opportunities, you can try to create them!

Alumni Network: Look for alumni who have careers similar to what you’re interested in pursuing. Not only is this a good indication that the MBA prepared them well for their role in sustainability, but you know there will be a network of people who you can look to for career advice and guidance.

Coursework: Research the sustainability-related coursework that the MBA offers, or see if you can take classes at connected schools. Many MBA programs will let you take electives at their Natural Resources or Engineering schools, which can help provide expertise in areas you’re interested in. Many schools also incorporate sustainability into the core curriculum.

Will an MBA still help if I already have sustainability experience?

Absolutely. Many sustainability roles look for a blend of business skills and sustainability knowledge, so the MBA will help round out your experience and provide that strong business background.

Ultimately, there is no one way to transition to a career in sustainability. Getting an MBA is a great way to build the knowledge and skills you will need in a variety of these roles, and can give you access to alumni who are already working in these fields.

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