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Have I really wasted three years of my life?

As I sit here preparing my guest lecture for the University of Leeds next week, it occurs to me that there is a question regularly debated. Hotly contested! Is it better to hire an in-house sustainability colleague with a business or an academic background?

So who’s right? Is experience more valuable than academic qualifications?

The case for experience

Most senior in-house practitioners in role today moved into their job without a formal sustainability background. These are the pioneers, I was (am) one of them! They had to create a new function, provide compelling business cases to secure budgets and convince, often huge, businesses of their messages. For these people, the ability to communicate and, crucially, to be taken seriously is key. They need to be able to demonstrate that they understand the commercial imperative and will support and enhance it.

Being respected in the business is more important than expert sustainability knowledge!

The case for academic qualifications

Sustainability today is complex and getting more so every year that goes by. Early strategies could focus on gaining internal alignment and picking off the low hanging fruit but climate change is increasingly having a material impact on supply chains and resilience. There are solutions but they often compete with each other and it’s a judgement call as to which route to take. Not to mention the sheer complexity and this is where an academic background is hugely advantageous.

Not every degree is the same, of course. Some focus on practical skills, such as environmental science or SHE, whereas others teach a more theoretical curriculum. Each have their merits but must be applied in sync with a business’s priorities and commercial requirements.

The complexities today mean you need to know the facts!

So what’s the answer?

Maybe you agree with me or maybe you’re shouting at your screen right now! I’d argue that having business acumen is THE most important aspect of a good sustainability practitioner. After all you are effectively telling your colleagues that they need to do their jobs in a different way – if they don’t believe that you will help them to deliver their KPIs then you will struggle to get cut through.

However, business acumen needs to be coupled with sustainability experience either gained on the job or through academic teaching. If academic, then the emphasis rests on the student and teacher to facilitate how this knowledge is gained.

So, on reflection it’s three years well spent BUT get business experience too!

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