Building a Career in the Impact Sector: Conference Advice from the Pros
By sustainability career consultant Shannon Houde
"How do I transition out of my old job and into the Impact Sector?"
As a sustainability careers consultant, this is one of the most common questions I get asked by my clients, and the recent Net Impact panel discussion Breaking into the Impact Sector: Solving the Experience Catch-22 was a great opportunity to explore some of the answers.
Joining me on the panel were three women who have been there, done it and bought the “sustainable cotton T-shirt”: Allison Jones moved out of education and into social media and editing at Idealist.org, Ashley Jablow moved from non-profit fundraising to business in a community management role at Open IDEO, and Jeanne Simon moved from financial services to a role at Accenture's non-profit arm, Development Partnerships.
Over the course of the hour-long discussion the panel offered candid, creative, real-world advice about how to break into impact work without a lot of direct experience (don't miss the audio of the full session below).
Be smart with the communications tools at your disposal
Sustainability professionals need great communication skills, so use yours to start a conversation with potential employers through social media. Ashley, Jeanne, Allison, and I all agree that it’s critical to use all the tools at your disposal to develop an engaged, online presence and start piecing together a circle of contacts. Twitter and blogging are fantastic ways to do this - just make sure your blogging is consistent in terms of timeliness, tone, and topic.
“For me, social media was a real door-opener,” Ashley told us (listen in at 16:32). “I reached out to different companies through Twitter and said ‘Hey, I’m interested in what you’re doing; can I have an informational interview?’” We also discussed how to move beyond using these tools for just networking, and actually help bolster your resume (19:40).
Making an impact professionally requires making a personal impact, too
Once that’s done, though, get busy developing genuine personal relationships with prospective employers. Connecting with real people is another essential sustainability skill, so demonstrate that you've got what it takes by nurturing professional relationships with a confident, calm attitude. Even for the currently unemployed (perhaps even especially), this is key. ”I’m totally quoting my mom,” Ashley half-jokes (starting at 15:20), “‘You’re not going to be unemployed forever.’”
So keep your network vibrant both during the job search and once you’re happily settled into your next role, too. “A lot of the networking I’ve done has been internally at my own company,” says Jeanne Simon (17:36). “I really started to move into roles I was passionate about because I met the people who were working on those teams.” Her work in Accenture’s CSR practice last year is a perfect example: “The woman who hired me really wanted skills that I had acquired as a commercial consultant, and then asked me to come onto her team.”
Make yourself useful to those already doing impact work
Allison Jones offers some deceptively simple advice (18:40): celebrate other people’s successes, share interesting information, be helpful, and be useful. “When I hear of something great that has happened to someone that I know, I share that with other people, and I send them a personal note and make myself available.”
“What can you offer?” Ashley remembers hearing in another Net Impact Conference session (13:05). She suggests looking to the professionals around you as your future peers, and connecting with them to offer your skills, time, and enthusiasm to help them possibly on a pro-bono basis at first. “Start...thinking about what you know, what you love, and what you can do to help them,” she says.
If you're already working within a company, investigate your company’s CSR and sustainability agenda and then network with people on the teams you want to join. Jeanne experienced this through her work with Accenture and found that internal teams will talk openly with fellow colleagues and the people excited about these ideas will talk to you, too. So once you're in a role, keep reaching out and get to know the people who might be your next boss.
If you’re a student looking to build your skills in community engagement, project management, and collaboration, launching an external-facing project on campus is a great way to do it. Allison, for example, set up a math and science tutoring program at college with student-driven leadership (11:58). And with a Net Impact chapter on more than 250 campuses nationwide, and a variety of skill-building experiences to take advantage of online, there are plenty of opportunities to lead.
So in a nutshell? Engage, communicate, connect, and make the most of your opportunities to build up the skills you need to get the impact job you want.
Listen to Breaking into the Impact Sector: Solving the Experience Catch-22
Shannon Houde, MBA, is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and corporate responsibility fields. She also launched and currently runs the Acre Career Coaching service for leading sustainability recruitment company, Acre Resources.