In my work as a sustainability practitioner over the past 15 years, I have realised that knowledge is powerful, but that it’s only the starting point.
Many sustainability professionals I know have a plethora of technical qualifications and often seek the next badge of honour to stand above their peers. Of course, technical skills are the backbone of every professional, and provide the necessary credibility to operate.
But few invest enough time and resources to become better communicators, for example, or to learn how to spin negative situations into positive ones. Some skills are, arguably, harder to acquire and are key to success, yet they are defined as ‘soft skills’:
• influencing and selling,
• bouncing back from setbacks or resilience, and
• managing projects and people aptly.
Let’s unpack them.
Over the years, I’ve seen many qualified people not able to get a message across, leaving their audience puzzled and confused. I’m sure you can relate: ever been in a meeting where the “expert” talked pure jargon? This can happen because they wanted to look the part or because they genuinely hadn’t thought that their audience didn’t have their same knowledge.
Perhaps that expert is you?
If we really want to make a difference in the world, we need to learn how to communicate our message powerfully. Just by observing powerful communicators like Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, you will spot what’s special about them: their delivery is pristine and passionate, their message clear, their empathy with their audience high.
So rule number one: attune to your audience. Learn what’s important for them and who they are, and mould your message on them. Next, re-think your language – voice and body. Do you use words that your family and friends would not understand? Do you take for granted that your audience knows what SDGs, ESG or Net-Zero are? Is your body language open and welcoming? Spending some time thinking about how you deliver the message as well as what you say is important to delivering your message effectively.
Which takes me to the second key skill: influencing, or selling, as I like to describe it. “Selling” is a normal part of everyday life, for everyone, since we negotiate our way through it.
But how can we make an impact and “sell” our sustainability ideas to others, even when they have little interest in them?
The key here is, again, to focus on what your audience cares about. Sustainability offers such a wide range of benefits, from financial to marketing, from market differentiation to risk management, that there is something for everyone. Whatever issue your clients need to address, you can respond with the perfect sustainability solution. Unfortunately, starting from the ethical point of view rarely moves people, but it’s certainly a welcome side effect when dealing with busy clients with profit in mind.
If you don’t feel confident that you can sell effectively, perhaps because you are a technical person with no sales background, you can always focus on the fact that you are providing a service to your clients and you are helping them address their issues while doing good in the meantime. You are not conning people into buying something they don’t need or want.
Another key skill in uncertain times like the ones we are living in is resilience, or the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
Sustainability is far from mainstream yet, and the challenges are numerous: from rising carbon emissions to biodiversity loss, to plastic pollution. It’s easy to get swamped by bad news. Added to this, often our conversations with naysayers leave us uninspired to take action, and wondering how our individual actions can possibly make the smallest dent in the universe.
However, we have plenty of examples of individuals generating huge movements from nothing, from Greta Thunberg to Rosa Parks. And even if we don’t desire to create a movement, it is useful to change attitudes towards setbacks both for our own mental health as well as the quality of our day-to-day life. Identifying the learning point in everything that happens to us is fundamental to shifting attitude, and so is self-care: something as simple as exercise, a walk in nature or five minutes of meditation can make all the difference to the way we respond to negative experiences.
Finally, when we deal with sustainability we are often project and people managers, even if we have never trained for it. In order to manage any project successfully, we need to be aware of the effect people, technologies and processes have on it. Fostering a collaborative approach from day one is an excellent starting point to increase the chances of success of a project. Carrying out a risk assessment to reduce any uncertainty around new technologies or processes. Also, adopting, when possible, life cycle thinking within a project will ensure the long-term sustainability of it.
If you want to create lasting change and become a leader in your field, focus on honing your soft skills and watch the magic happen.