Jan 20, 2022
The sustainability sector is growing rapidly, which means you might be going from low level independent contributor to in charge of hiring an entire team before you know it.
Construction was not on my radar when I first began thinking about a sustainability career, as positions in sustainability at construction firms were only beginning to emerge. After an internship with Hourigan, an integrated construction/development firm, the CEO, Mark Hourigan, offered to hire me full-time. But there was one catch — Hourigan had never had a full-time sustainability hire and I would be tasked with writing my own job description.
When I was in middle school, I set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) for myself: To ensure my great-great-great grandchildren could see polar bears in Alaska in person, not in science or in history books on the topic of modern-day mass extinctions. I thought about this goal as I was considering the position with Hourigan a great deal. Construction projects are typically designed to last 50-100 years — meaning they would impact many generations after me. And that is what made it click. I decided to chart my own path in the unnavigated waters of forming a new position.
I turned to what most of us do when tasked with a new project and hopped on Google. I poured over job openings and descriptions for sustainability consultants, sustainability managers, sustainability architects and contractors, and even chief sustainability officers. I canvased each description for tasks I currently did and things I wanted to do. I compared experiences and qualifications — did they require years of experience, a master’s degree, proficiencies in technologies, or professional credentials? I also took note of salary ranges for later negotiations.
Next, I looked internally. I surveyed current employees on what they wanted out of a sustainability position at the organization. I collected quantitative data on the hours each project manager was spending on tasks that my new role could take on. In the end, I would be saving six project managers over 1,200 hours of work — giving them more time to focus on project-specific conflicts and successful project management execution.
Finally, it was time for the cherry on top — a name. But naming my position was a difficult task. Would I coordinate, manage or analyze? Would I be involved in environmental services, environmental programs, sustainability services or sustainability programs? I started with environmental services coordinator, but the term “environmental” aligns more with stormwater and soil management in the construction industry. I adjusted to “sustainability,” which better fit the work on third-party certifications. Services coordinator also didn’t make sense as I was providing analytical feedback on all sustainable project tools, resources and strategies — not managing Hourigan’s sustainability services. I ultimately landed on sustainability program analyst as my title.
“I sought out candidates based on the qualities I could not teach and committed to teaching whomever I brought on board whatever information they lacked.”
After working under the sustainability program analyst title for two years, Hourigan created and launched a sister company, STRUCTR Advisors, offering independent consulting services. I joined STRUCTR Advisors as the lead sustainability program analyst. After two years of working at this new company, the workload grew, and it was time to add a person to sustainability team and transition into a manager. I was back to writing a job description, only this time I was doing it for someone else. I had a few “must-haves” on my list of qualities in a candidate. I chose each of these qualities based on the experiences I had in my trajectory, from intern to manager.
Sustainability in design and construction can be a laborious process. Some days your goal is to make the more sustainable version of the project resonate with team members. There are days spent wondering if you are making a big enough impact and days when you feel you have helped move the needle. Truly, an unwavering commitment and balanced approach to sustainability are key factors to success in this role. I knew this was a critical trait in the hiring process, ensuring a new potential colleague could stay grounded and not feel helpless.
Holistic communication skills are critical in sustainable consulting because often clients are coming to you because you are the expert. They need to understand impacts, avoided emissions, waste, etc. very clearly, which often boils down to simplified language and digestible facts. Comprehensive research skills rounded out the ideal qualities in a candidate. Finding, reviewing and validating research ensures you remain credible throughout your career.
Notice that specific degree or educational background was not a “must-have” in a new hire. This was intentional. Many sustainability professionals come from diverse backgrounds, and that diversity makes their justifications more valid or more relatable to clients. I sought out candidates based on the qualities I could not teach and committed to teaching whomever I brought on board whatever information they lacked.
After months of reviewing resumes and interviews, I hired my first sustainability program coordinator in June 2021 I went from hoping I could make an impact on one project team to being the first building block of someone’s career in sustainability environment. It was a full-circle moment I will never forget.