5 key skills every sustainability manager should have

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Being a sustainability manager requires more than getting through a list of ‘jobs to be done’, for most it is more than a title and more of a lifestyle choice, one that you can pour your heart and soul into. It is about working towards a common purpose and having a positive influence on the world around us.

However, what does a sustainability manager need to do to create this influence, and to make changes in industries such as construction? Some of the more traditional workplaces might consider this role to be shrouded in high level concepts, unknown factors, and ‘fluff’. On the contrary, sustainability managers need to be agile in the way they work, flexible to change, and inspire teams to adopt more efficient ways of working. It is a people orientated mission, and you need to have a strong balance of technical and social skills to ensure you are as effective as you need to be.

Below are just some of the skills that I consider critical for any sustainability manager to thrive in their mission for having a positive influence in the world.

1. Enough depth of knowledge, but keep the generalist alive

By definition, creating strategies with sustainable development in mind requires us to consider the environmental, social and economic factors in any decision. On a site level, this can mean understanding water, air, noise pollution, waste management, land contamination, hazardous substances, vibration exposure, carbon output, ecological risks, community disturbance, health risks…the list continues. Being a specialist means that you won’t necessarily be able to see the bigger picture and can hinder holistic thinking. However, you need to understand enough about each topic area to ensure these risks can be managed effectively, and are considered at the right level in company policy.

2. Own the narrative

In order to cement the principles of sustainability within any team, we need to be able to articulate the benefits and risks in a way that makes sense to the audience in question. Speaking to gangs on site, board members, commercial managers, engineers, designers, project managers, all require a different way of communicating strategy. The legal ramifications associated with poor air quality on health can influence decisions taken by risk managers, but trying to reduce PM10 or PM2.5 levels by 50µgm-3 won’t mean an awful lot, especially if it’s just for the sake of hitting a target. You need to be a good story-teller, and sell the right story.

3. Pragmatism

Too many times sustainability managers come up against blockers that just cannot be overcome. This is particularly prominent when looking at ways of working in the field, or on site. Sometimes this new methodology just won’t work, because of other factors outside your control. A word of advice; pick your battles. Make sure to really listen to concerns raised by others around you. It might be a concern that can be overcome, but it might also be a nuance that you wouldn’t have picked up on yet.

4. Number crunching

Yes, economics is within the sphere of sustainability, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is probably the weakest area of most sustainability managers. Whatever strategy or policy is being put forward, we need to be able to quantify the added value that this approach will take. This isn’t always easy, especially considering many strategies are aimed a very long term gains, and aren’t always tangible assets that can be easily quantified. On top of building robust business cases, making data-driven decisions should be an absolute must. Access to the right data and knowing how to interpret this within the context of multiple variables is critical to making informed decisions.

5. Patience and perseverance

This role is still an evolving one, and dealing with many different kinds of people can present its challenges. There will be barriers to overcome, complexity to unpick, and mistakes to be made. But whatever your experience, just remember the common purpose, and remain cool, calm and collected whenever you dive into discussions from social governance to material compliance. It is a long game, and resilience is critical to adapt to changing conditions over time.

This list is not comprehensive by any means, and I expect other professionals may draw different conclusions depending on their experience. In any case, I invite anyone working in sustainability orientated roles to share your thoughts with us at Qflow, and whatever your opinion on the do’s and don’ts of a role like this, please keep going. We are all working towards the same mission in some way shape or form, and are reliant on your continued determination to instigate change in every organisation around then world. We are always excited to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions how to improve this area of construction are always welcome. Please feel free to reach out to us on our website or through our social channels.

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Jade Cohen

Jade Cohen

Jade is the co-founder of Qualis Flow and the company CPO. As an environmental specialist, Jade is highly motivated to evolve the construction industry from a sustainability perspective.

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