Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Breaking into Sustainability Consulting: 101

Sustainability and CSR consulting is an emerging field with optimistic prospects for growth due to the increasing realization that there is a huge business opportunity to leverage social and environmental strategy to drive financial objectives.

According to the 2012 Global Sustainability Consultant Survey conducted by David Schatsky at Green Research, 60 percent of sustainability consultants entered the field within the last 5 years.  We are seeing the arrival of a growing number of new boutique consulting firms focusing specifically on organizational sustainability strategy.  Concurrently, more and more existing consultants are moving from their prior field of expertise and gaining the education needed to reinvent themselves as sustainability strategy specialists.  

What is perhaps even more telling of the maturation of this industry is that all of the big management and strategy consulting firms -- Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PwC, Accenture, Boston Consulting, McKinsey -- have each created their own division for sustainability consulting.  Such firms can have tremendous influence on big clients whose operations have far reaching social and environmental impacts.  The fact that these firms have realized the value to be gained from sustainability strategy is an indicator that the private sector will be the most probable leader in driving the global shift toward sustainability.  This, of course, appears to be ever more true as we witness, in frustration, seemingly stagnant global legislative action to mandate corporate responsibility. 

As a current MBA student studying sustainable business management and looking to capitalize on the opportunity to be a sustainability professional in the coming decades, I have gotten some great advice on how to strategically enter the field. 

Paul Bozzo -- my Entrepreneurial Finance professor and Founding Principal of the 10X Group, a consultancy for entrepreneurial strategy -- gave me an overview of common career paths of specialty consultants.  You can start with a big firm -- a KPMG or an E&Y -- to get broad experience with management consulting, client relationships, and strategy development and implementation.  From there, you can spend years moving up and up within the firm to eventually and hopefully become a partner.  Or, what is more common is to take that broad experience and move to smaller, more focused firms.  Eventually, a final route for some is to establish yourself as an independent consultant with enough  expertise developed over the years to market your personal brand and take on solo projects.  According to the Green Research 2012 Sustainability Consultant Survey, 61 percent of sustainability consultants work alone or in firms with 10 or less consultants in the practice.  

Of course, this is very general advice, and sustainability consultants have varying career paths within this framework as well as completely different paths altogether.  But being at the onset of my career as a sustainability professional, this general guidance is enough for me to take my career development to the next step. 

Navin Ramacharndran -- currently Vice President of Products at Amyris Inc, and formerly an Associate Principal at McKinsey & Co. -- provided further advice on how to prepare to enter the sustainability division of a large consulting firm:

1.  Identify which office has the greatest focus on sustainability.  The global scale of these companies means multiple offices across the country and around the world.  Different offices encounter a different number of clients interested in sustainability strategy development.  For example, because of regional culture, offices in San Francisco or New York will see a higher demand for sustainability consulting services compared to, say, Atlanta or Minneapolis.  

2.  Ask associate-level consultants at those identified offices how much they actually work on sustainability projects.  If there are few active clients for a firm's sustainability division, associates are often placed on other projects, whatever they may be.  To develop expertise in the sustainability field, you should be working specifically on those projects as much as possible. 

3.  Master the case job interview.  According to MIT's Career Development Handbook, the case interview is an interview in which "you are introduced to a business dilemma facing a particular company. You are asked to analyze the situation, identify key business issues, and discuss how you would address the problems involved."  Case interviews are most common in management consulting firms and investment banking companies, and there are numerous resources on- and offline where you can find sample case studies to practice with.  

However, in my search to find case studies specific to sustainability issues and strategy development, I have come up short.  I imagine this is because of the relatively early stage of maturity of the industry.  The way I have decided is the best way to find my own sustainability cases to analyze is to find a company with an established CSR strategy and pull up their annual CSR report as well as the 10-K for that same year.  The analysis, then, is to identify the key social and environmental issues addressed in the CSR report and understand how and where the company's sustainability strategy had an impact on their financial performance reflected in the 10-K.  To get clients onboard, there must always be financial gain because the bottom line of the triple bottom line, ultimately, is the bottom line.  Of course, many efforts that are part of a company's sustainability strategy provide intangible, non-financial benefit.  It is also equally important to address these gains and translate them into an argument for how the company can leverage that value as a tangible asset. 

Are you currently a sustainability consultant?  What was your career path to get you where you are today?  What advice do you have for MBA students looking to enter the field?  Do you think that analyzing sustainability cases is an effective way to prepare for an interview with a sustainability consulting firm?  Please share your thoughts.

37 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing! I have recently completed a MBA in Sustainable Business with Green Development Concentration from Marylhurst University. Sustainability consulting is what I want to pursue as a career. I interviewed and applied for, literally, 100's of jobs and everyone said the same thing: "Your resume looks great, but you have little, or no experience." So, I was hired by a biodiesel manufacturing company and I have been appointed the position of Sustainability Coordinator. My plan is to use this as an opportunity to consult and gain the experience I previously lacked by being able to prove that since I was hired our GHG emissions have decrease by X amount and we have saved $X. My advice to those seeking employment in Sustainability Consulting, and even with a Sustainable MBA, are having trouble is to start where you are working so that you will have a sustainability case to discuss in future interviews. Just my two cents...

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Rick! I agree that starting with GHG, energy, water, waste, etc. analysis within your current company is a great way to get experience in the field and familiarize with appropriate sustainability metrics that will later be essential for consulting with future clients. For those who are not pursuing a consulting track, there is always the opportunity to champion your company's sustainability efforts even if you are not currently in a sustainability-focused role. I've witnessed time and again a trend where a company's Director of Sustainability -- or Chief Sustainability Officer, VP Sustainability, Sustainability Coordinator, etc. -- transitioned into that role from elsewhere in the company because they were able to pitch to their executive suite the business case for creating such a role in the company. Rick, I think it's great that you were able to come into your biodiesel company and start in a sustainability role. I would love to be able to find a similar opportunity.

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  3. I don't know if anyone has mentioned this yet (I haven't thoroughly read everything here, sorry), but The Natural Step has awesome courses on corporate sustainability. Bob Willard, a leading expert on 'selling' corporate sustainability models, has a new book (released last month) called "The New Sustainability Advantage" - you may want to look into that as well (I think it's his 10th Edition!).

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  4. Great, thanks for the suggestion, Elaine! Another good resource I'd recommend is called "Making Sustainability Work" by Marc J. Epstein. Epstein has a lot of other publications on measuring environmental performance and developing sustainability strategy.

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  5. To be a Sustainability Consultant in Asia, especially when one is a non-westerner, can be a challenge. This is because of Sustainability is still in its infancy in the corporate world, and the notion of having an Asian consultant talking about Sustainability just doesn't quite match up to experts from US/Europe. I guess this is a perception and hopefully it could change in due course.

    I could draw parallel to Rick's experience. In my case, I was "accidentally" thrown into the Sustainability role as our HQ decided to develop a regional program to drive Sustainability. This gave me the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the topics & work with different stakeholders to come up with strategy & initiatives. This is the practical side of Sustainability, although I've yet to attend formal school to look at the academic perspective.

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  8. I am currently enrolled in a 1 year Sustainability Science MS program. I am considering sustainability consulting as a possible career. Do you think it is necessary to have an MBA? I am debating on applying for a 1 year MBA program to bolster my resume and learn some new skills. I would rather avoid going back for more school/loans but I am thinking it may be in my best interest in the long run.

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    1. I don't think it is completely necessary to have an MBA to pursue sustainability consulting. It's more important to have experience planning and executing a sustainability strategy for a company. However, what an MBA is good for is to understand how a sustainability strategy is integrated with core business strategy, as well as its relationship with every part of a company's operations.

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