Developing Your Talent for the Business of the Future

Nate Young Backpacking on Washington's Olympic PenninsulaBy Nate Young, Brightworks Education Coordinator

It goes without saying that conducting business “sustainably” requires a new paradigm of operations. Given that, it should also go without saying that businesses will need a different employee skill set as well. Unfortunately, companies that pursue sustainability are often hesitant to equip their employees with the necessary knowledge and tools to realign their operations.

Gap in Corporate Sustainability Initiatives and Staff TrainingA recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted this disparity. “American companies don’t seem to do training anymore,” it declared. While the U.S. unemployment rate is almost 9 percent, 52 percent of employers reported having difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages, according to Manpower. By offering “just a bit” of employee training, these companies could develop the talent they need.

Instead, in-house training opportunities have all but dried up, the article reported. “Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

And yet, opportunities abound for professionals to develop the skills that make sense for progressive companies: from ongoing workforce education programs (like we offer at Brightworks) up to a graduate business degree with a sustainability focus.

To get a better idea of the benefits of burnished sustainability skill sets, I chatted with Scott Marshall and Alison Dennis of the Portland State University (PSU) MBA program. Given that PSU’s MBA program was recently ranked by the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes as the best small business school in the world, I figured they understood what skills companies should and would look for in new and existing employees.

Scott Marshall, Associate Dean of graduate programs, said the shift from short-term, often quarterly goals to operating a business for the long-term precipitates the first critical change. Firms must develop skills around recognizing trends and identifying resource constraints pertinent to their business.

Alison Dennis, Director of the Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability (CGLS) at PSU, said this boils down to using a systems-thinking lens:

“Professionals working on the leading edge of sustainable business are really pioneering the field as we go. Sustainability expertise implies first the ability to take a critical view of the current state of a business, then to design a new model and – most critically – to offer the change management and strategic leadership capabilities to put it into place.”

In the workplace, this requires new hires to bring more than just what was asked in the job description. Alison said, “On day one, count on the sustainability lens to bring process improvement to the table. They won’t just do the job; (they will) also work to assess whether the position is effectively designed with the long term in mind.”

Consumers increasingly expect businesses to demonstrate and disclose at least a basic level of action toward sustainability. Through employee training, your firm greatly improves its ability to track and report its progress. Professionals who gain additional sustainability skill sets while maintaining their current positions are your answer to meeting consumer expectations. “Ultimately,” Alison said, “the most profitable companies will be the ones that take care of their people as well as the planet.”

In my next post, I’ll talk to several hiring managers to more fully contextualize the benefits of sustainability training for progressive companies today and into the future. Suffice it to say, firms have a clear incentive to engage their workforce now: Right Management found 84 percent of North American workers are planning to look for a new position in 2012. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, training on sustainability can help engage and retain employees. The question is: What are you waiting for?

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