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Want to Make an Impact? 3 Reasons to Consider a 'Traditional' Role

Want to Make an Impact? 3 Reasons to Consider a 'Traditional' Role


When I speak about careers with MBAs who are passionate about sustainability or social impact, they often begin the conversation with, “Well, I’m not sure what I want to do, but I know that I don’t want to work in a ‘traditional’ business role.”

For these students, “traditional” means a role in finance, operations, strategy, or marketing, typically at a big multinational corporation, investment bank, or management consulting firm. 

It’s true that there are interesting and rewarding careers to be had with titles like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Analyst and Sustainability Director.  But thinking about impact careers in their own category implies that the only place to make an impact is from outside the typical business infrastructure.  It implies that “traditional” business roles have no opportunity for impact.

In fact, sustainability and CSR practitioners might tell you just the opposite.  When I was interviewing sustainability practitioners for my book a few years ago, Marcy Scott Lynn, then director of CSR for Sun Microsystems advised: “To really impact the way a company does business, you need to be where the company does business.” That means working on the front lines of decision-making, in one of the business units.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to work from within a traditional business function.  Here are three:

1. You have the opportunity to make impact-oriented business decisions directly. 

Corporate sustainability or CSR departments can advise, educate, or persuade business units to make more sustainable choices in, say, packaging design or supply chain decisions, but rarely are they implementing the decisions directly.  If you take a role in a marketing or operations function, you may have more opportunities to affect decisions at the point of impact.

“I want to influence product sustainability and be in the best position to drive the decision to invest effectively in advancing sustainable supply chains,” Jessie Margolis told me about her role in procurement at Roche Molecular Systems.

“It's hard to imagine a role that doesn't potentially influence how the company affects people and the environment these days,” says Christine Bader, author of the book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist.  Christine managed human rights impacts for the oil giant BP in Indonesia and China before moving into a corporate role in the company’s London headquarters. 


2. You can understand where the levers of change are and how to make the business case for that change. 

In her book, Christine talks about her decision to move to a corporate role: “I needed more exposure to the company’s senior executives and greater fluency in financial and commercial language. … I needed that fluency both for my own credibility within the company and to be able to make a compelling case for social issues.”

Hope Connolly, a senior supply chain analyst in global strategy at Gap Inc. takes a similar view.  “Leading CSR at a company requires deep relationships across the company and expert negotiation and influencing skills, all of which come after a long time in your career.”

Until you really understand how the company creates and measures value, until you understand how a company thinks about its customers, its supply chain, and its corporate culture, and how it operates, you can’t make that case very effectively.


3. You can lead by example. 

Corporate impact often boils down to the sum of collective behaviors.  If you are the employee in your group who pushes for paid time off to volunteer with your favorite nonprofit, who bikes to work, who asks about the social impact of a new product in a design meeting, who suggests an energy-saving initiative for your workplace, you set an example for others to follow. 

Social impact and sustainability considerations become a daily consideration for your teammates, not something that sits off in the distant CSR department.

As the saying goes, “lead from wherever you are.”  It’s through thousands of small daily actions that culture changes.  So, as you’re thinking about your next career move, don’t write off those “traditional” business jobs.  They just might be the biggest opportunities for impact of all.



Katie Kross is Managing Director of the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and the author of Profession and Purpose.  She will be moderating a panel about impact careers at the 2015 Net Impact Conference in Seattle.  Follow her on Twitter for job openings and career advice: @Katie_Kross