How to Get Hired as a Sustainability Professional

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How to Get Hired as a Sustainability Professional

This is the prologue to the 6-part series just published: The Secret Life of a Sustainability Professional.  I appreciate the passion and excitement with which it was received.  And, thank you for all of the requests for assistance on landing a gig yourself.  I wish I had time to give one-on-one feedback to everyone who emailed me their resumes.  I am confident that if you follow the 6 simple steps below (even if you feel like resisting) then you will not need my coaching.


Despite what some may tell you… there are only two paths to getting a sustainability job.  I took the road less traveled.  But I’ve participated in dozens of webinars on this topic, and have dozens of friends who took the more common route to “sustainability professional.”

I’ve boiled it all down into a few key secrets to success — upon which you can apply your own unique hopes and dreams.  That’s what I’m sharing here.

If you need more than these simple concepts to cut through the clutter — I don’t think you will — then please comment below, or send me an email after you read this.

Step 1: Know What You Want

When getting my MBA, I read Paul Hawken’s work.  Then, I read a FastCompany article about Adam Werbach leaving the Sierra Club to do consulting — helping the businesses that needed to change, actually change.  He was demonized by the environmental community.

Something clicked.  I knew immediately that I wanted to work as a corporate sustainability professional.  Even though I didn’t know what that would look like.  Werbach’s testimony resonated with me.

The big thing that excited me at the time was LEED-certified buildings… because they encompassed 5 different areas of sustainability… and it was measurable.

Taking stock of my qualifications… I had been an environmental educator, leadership trainer, and outreach coordinator by trade.  I wasn’t an engineer, and I didn’t want to go back to school for that.  I decided that I would not be well-suited in the manufacturing / industrial world.

But I had grown up on a farm and worked a lot of construction with my dad and uncles.  In college. I took odd jobs in food service and the computer labs.  And my favorite courses in grad school were related to quality management and process improvement — having consulted for Harper Brush and the local Water Works on two successful projects.

Leveraging my existing strengths, I decided to focus on a retail company that was involved in construction and interested implementing a company-wide sustainability strategy.

Commit and Take Clear Action

This is often the hardest thing for you to commit to — but it’s only because you believe something that is not true.  That keeping your options open will lead to more opportunities.  That is a lie.

Stating clearly what you want will make it easier for you to communicate that to others, target your searches, and demonstrate confidence in every conversation you have.

Finding your niche will bring you more opportunities, not less.

Here are a few key truths that I suggest you consider:

  • No one else can tell you what job you should be looking for.  Never outsource your life or career to someone else’s opinion.
  • If you can tell people you are looking for a specific job, they will resonate with your sense of clarity… and they will still send other opportunities your way.  “Hey, I know you said you only wanted to work in X, but saw this posting and thought of you.”
  • If you can’t tell people you are looking for a specific job, they will likely completely forget what it was you were looking for at all, and not send you any opportunities.  “What was it again you wanted to do?”

You are not the only person wanting to transition into a sustainability role.

Leveraging your existing strengths can be the fastest way to make that move — because you could already stand-out from the crowd and not even know it.  Here is what I suggest… if only as a thought exercise:

  1. Go back through all of your old high school and college resumes.
  2. List every non-paid and paid work you’ve ever done.
  3. Categorize those by industry and type of work.
  4. Look for patterns.  What are you already more knowledgeable about than most people?
  5. What types of positions would you be perfect for?

Step 2: Build Your Resume

Having made my decision, it made sense for me to begin studying for my LEED-AP exam.  I also started looking for a time to take workshops with The Natural Step USA out of Portland, OR — a sustainability strategic framework.

I had decided to move back to Iowa from California to be closer to my family.  But before I did, I had the opportunity to join a 3-week bicycle tour from San Francisco to San Diego teaching sustainability at schools, and camping along the way.

Each night in my tent, I read about 20 pages of the LEED manual to the light of my REI headlamp.  I also began outlining the mission of a non-profit I wanted to start.  I was committed.

When I got to Des Moines, I not only founded a grassroots sustainability non-profit… but I helped plan a speaker series on corporate sustainability.  It culminated with a workshop led by The Natural Step (TNS) USA for local businesses, which I participated in.

Look Good on Paper

Professional training is almost as critical as experience.  The two go hand-in-hand.

You want your resume to show both.  Real-world scrapes and bruises lend credibility to your ideas.  And professional training lends credibility that your ideas are based on industry best practices.

Based on the industry and type of job that you chose:

  • Immediately look for professional training opportunities specific to your career choice
  • Immediately start volunteering to work on community projects related to your career choice
  • Measure and add the credentials and the results of your real-world experience to your resume

Step 3: Choose Your Path

I had zero corporate experience when I moved back to Iowa.

As outreach coordinator for the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program, I worked with local businesses and universities in California.  In Des Moines, I was the lead facilitator for corporate leadership and team-building programs with the ISU Extension’s Adventure Learning Center.  And, I taught leadership classes at William Penn University — College for Working Adults.

Feeling that was a weakness, I did something I never thought I’d do.  I went to work downtown — in insurance.

Now, I don’t recommend this route specifically.  But here’s why it worked for me.

Des Moines is an insurance town.  You can always get a job in insurance, and:

  • It showed potential employers that –although I had worked in outdoor adventure jobs all my life — I was capable of putting on a suit and tie and doing the 8-hours-in-a-cubicle routine.
  • It gave me a steady paycheck and a late morning schedule (11 to 7), that allowed me to use my mornings to found a grassroots non-profit and start doing free sustainability consulting for local businesses.

2 Options – New Position or New Company

The majority of sustainability positions are created and filled within the walls of a company.

Many friends have taken a personal quest at work, and ended up writing their own job description.

That may not seem fair, but think about it.  The company can be confident that you understand the inner workings of the company and the industry.   You have existing relationships.  And perhaps, you’ve even shown positive sustainability results on-the-job through volunteer efforts… or by applying sustainability thinking in your existing position.

Even my own story has a bit of internal nature to it.

I did some free consulting with a young woman in accounting, Crystal, who was earning her MBA on the company’s tuition-reimbursement program.  She was taking a Green Business course through the University of Iowa and we sat together at a coffee shop over lunch to discuss starting a volunteer “green team.”

We hammered out some of the details, and I cautioned about the possibility of volunteer burn-out in the absence of dedicated time or budget resources.  Later, that Green Task Force asked for a position to be hired… and called me to suggest that I apply.

  1. Do you already work for a good company that could use a sustainability initiative?  Consider leveraging your existing relationships inside the company and in the community to carve out a position where you are.
  2. Do you know for sure that what you want to do lies outside the 4 walls of your current employer?  Then commit to looking elsewhere, and accept that it will require a little more work — but it’s definitely achievable.

Step 4: Build a Rockstar Network

I grew up fairly poor on a small rural farm.  The only way you were supposed to get ahead was hard work and your own merit.  Getting ahead because you know people was distasteful and looked upon with contempt.

The subtle association was that I also grew up with was that I needed to do everything on my own.  I was even proud that all of my jobs were in far-off places where I didn’t know anyone… so I felt like I did it “on my own.”

I would NEVER have gotten my job today without the help of dozens of friends and fellow advocates in my community.  For which, I’m eternally grateful.

I found out about the posting from the Green Task Force members that I had consulted for.  During all 3 interviews — HR, VP of Construction, and finally the CEO — it was mentioned that they had never received so many positive recommendations for a person.  I’ll cover that next.

The difference between an old-boys club and a rockstar network was one of integrity.

Getting a job you’re not qualified for only because you know people is still pretty unfortunate… but it happens.  Getting a job you are qualified for — in a competitive market, sometimes is impossible without a very real, and very necessary, part of the application process:

  • Having respected people in the community vouch for your character, experience, education, training, and ability to make things happen.

Cultivate Quality Relationships

A rockstar network of respected people in the community has incredible value.

First, it just makes life more enjoyable to have close friends who understand and value your mission in life.

Second, they will keep an eye out for opportunities and send them your way.

Third, they can vouch for your work in the future and bring third-party validation to the value you can provide to a company.

  1. Start today attending events related to your career goals.
  2. Network and meet new people.
  3. Clearly share your career goals, but don’t ask for favors.
  4. Instead, offer to be of assistance in any way possible.  Let them know what you’re good at.  Ask what goals they have, or what pain-points they are dealing with.  Try to find any way to help them.  Be of service.  Volunteer.  Make connections.
  5. Stay in touch, and remind them what your career goals are.

Step 5: Focus Your Resume

When I found out the position was open, I completely revised my resume for the application.

I removed any work experience that didn’t pertain directly to the job or industry I was applying for.

I also read through the job description online and replaced my language with their exact phrasing.

What I turned in was only one page long — with 3 glowing written references attached.

I also called on every person in my rockstar network and asked if they knew anyone who worked at the company.  If they did, I asked if they would put in a good word for me… to ensure that I got an interview.

Get Yourself Interviewed

There is a nasty rumor out there that your resume needs to be 5 pages long and should never show any gaps in employment.


HR professionals are extremely busy people.  Help them out.  If the application process is not online and requires you to provide a month-by-month breakdown of your life story… only give them what they need to pass you on to the “Yes” pile for an interview.

Phase One for any HR generalist is to weed out the unqualified candidates.  Phase Two is to look through the qualified candidates for those who stand-out.  So you need to make sure (1) that you’re qualified, and (2) that you stand out.  Any information that doesn’t serve those two purposes is a distraction.

  1. Read the job description multiple times.
  2. Make sure that your resume covers ALL of the required qualifications.  Leave nothing out!
  3. Copy and paste the language used in the job description directly into your resume and application.  Leave no room for confusion on the part of the HR generalist.
  4. Arrange your resume to highlight the unique nature of your past experience.  Review Part 1: Know What You Want and Part 2: Build Your Resume.
  5. Make sure your specific credentials and experience related to that particular job are front and center.
  6. Add one fun and interesting fact, just to make it memorable… but don’t overdo it.

Step 6: Nail Your Interview

As I said, I had 3 interviews.  One with HR.  One with my VP.  One with my CEO.

I already knew a lot about the company from the Green Task Force.  My friend and roommate was their architect and I had already visited two of their LEED-certified stores.  I had read through their company website twice.  And I had Google’d them to see what was in the news.

Another community advocate worked in their Quality Process Improvement department, and I had multiple coffees with her to learn about the company culture and who in HR would likely interview me.

During all of my interviews, I focused on sharing my career goals.  I complimented the company’s history, it’s previous sustainability work that I had learned about, and asked about additional initiatives that I might not have been aware of.

I shared my philosophies on corporate sustainability, referencing both the LEED and TNS frameworks that I had trained in.  When asked what I would change, I shared the process by which I would define, measure, and analyze key areas of the company to drive my decision-making.

I also shared my childhood days in food service, my servant-leadership perspective, and my passion for quality management.

Only later did I learn that my main competition for the position was a well-respected female engineer holding a government position with over 20 years of experience — but her experience was in government and engineering.  Every single thing I shared showed that I was grooming myself for a position just like this one.

I didn’t sugar-coat anything.  The CEO asked me what my biggest reservation was.  I told him point-blank — greenwashing.  If I took the job and later felt it was just a marketing gimmick — that I was brought on just to check a box and put my title in industry publications — that I would quit immediately.  He appreciated my candor.

Speak Their Language

If you haven’t read the training available on this site, I highly recommend you do for this reason.

There is a fatal mistake that can kill an interview.  And it is very common.

Never tell the company the things you think they need to do better in your interview — unless asked specifically what you would change.  And even then, be as generous in your praise as possible while doing it.  Pointing out company’s flaws you see can backfire in two ways:

  1. By distracting the interviewer from connecting with you personally, and wanting to learn more about you.
  2. By giving the impression that you are quick to judge people and processes that you may not fully understand.

Focus on how you and your qualifications and experience are a perfect match.  How you and the company culture are a great fit.  How your training and relationships can bring value to the company.

Do ask questions about the job requirements and expectations, benefits and opportunities upon being hired.  Show that you want to make sure that it’s a good fit for you, and you’re not desperate to take whatever job is available without considering if it meets your standards… or helps you achieve your goals.

The interview should be a foregone conclusion… because you should have already taken the necessary steps to prepare you for success.

  • Step 1 – Know What You Want
  • Step 2 – Build Your Resume
  • Step 3 – Choose Your Path
  • Step 4 – Build a Rockstar Network
  • Step 5 – Focus Your Resume
  • Step 6 – Nail Your Interview

However, your #1 job-clinching secret for not faltering at the interview stage is this…

Know everything you can about the company and who is interviewing you.  And share clearly all of the things you have done that make you perfect for this job.  Everything else is a distraction.


Now, go forth and get hired.  This is not an over-night checklist.  This is a strategy for finding a career you love, and getting hired to be a sustainability professional — however you define it.

If you follow these steps by the letter, and still are having difficulty — by all means, comment below and I will try to improve this post.  If you absolutely feel you need coaching… email me directly and we can discuss it.




Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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  1. john rogers Reply

    Hi Adam,

    I like where you come from. I have experienced the pre-emminant sustainability association where i live to be very academics oriented, with zero small business understanding or desire to promote local small green businesses. They do support and oversee good programs, but are so academic heavy and need to reach outside of their group and embrace small businesses who are doing great things. This is a huge mistake and turn-off for me. The sustainability movement is in general much too strong on academics and needs much more focus on ways of getting things done and promoting small businesses and their tremendous innovation and get it done work ethic. We all need to get out of this kind of "clique" mentality and reach out and work with others who are making things happen. I constantly try to bring different groups together and it never has worked out yet. People want all the credit and do not care as much about making things better here on our planet. I do not know how to deal with this anymore, i do not see anyone wanting to work together with other similar minded groups. They pretend that they do, but i have not ever seen it happen with a lot of nice effort and patience that has run thin.

    • ecofluence Reply

      John, thank you. I understand your frustration. I whole-heartedly agree with you that helping small businesses is a niche left untouched by a large majority of the sustainability movement. Small businesses are usually struggling, so it makes sense that they tend to be protective… I see this with non-profits, too. Unfortunate, but makes sense — they often are worried about survival, and that over-shadows the "greater good" moral imperative that I still believe they feel. If you want to chat about this more… let me know.

      • john rogers Reply

        yes that might be good. i basically unloaded on the group and asked for a refund on my membership. This all got stimulated by a so called green builders event they put together. at first glance, it looked awesome, but looking into it more deeply, there was zero promotion, workshops every minute of the so called expo so no time for participants to meet businesses who paid to be in this joke of a show. it was all about fund raising and looking good to the state for the group and zero focus or care about small businesses. i gave them both barrels in a caring fashion, basically saying to them there is more to life than academics and promoting your group, that i did like their projects but told them straight out that they need to think about the small business members who float their boat. i got a defensive response and that is where i left it. i really dislike their clicky academic mind set, i almost think small businesses are teh best way to enact change, small green businesses. they get things done vs living in academic masturbation and group image. it is painful. i want to support the group but could care less about them, which is not based on anger as much as frustration and seeing actions. i go by action and not words. this group is really long on words and clickyness and academics, they are all going for their PhDs and are riding on the coat tails of this organization and i have had enough of that kind of consciousness or lack thereof.

  2. Ann Reply

    Hi there. Great article!Just a query.What kind of leed project experience did you have to be eligible for the LEED AP exam?
    Thanks very much.

    • ecofluence Reply

      Ann, great question. I got my LEED AP back in the v2 days, before project experience was required. Zero projects. I have since worked on approx. 67 projects with my company. With today's standards, I believe the LEED Green Associate would have been more appropriate for where I was at the time. Today, I know several people who have volunteered on projects for other firms to get the experience. Which I assume is why you asked. If not, please let me know.

      • Ann Reply

        Thanks very much Adam. Was hoping to get some LEED project experience that will count towards the LEED AP but there aren't a lot of LEED Projects in this area.There are some online project experience opportunities that you can gain for a fee. But i wonder how authentic they are.

        • ecofluence Reply

          Ann, that is a common problem. Do you have a local chapter of the USGBC nearby you could email/call and volunteer? That and internships have been the most common way I've seen friends get experience on a project… who are not already employed at a firm that does LEED work. Good luck.

  3. Fulvio Reply

    HI Adam, I want to thank you for the article, I found it very interesting. I would ask you 1000 question, but the most important issue, for what concern my situation, is the network. I recently move to USA from Europe, so I do not have a network (unfortunately they consider reference from across the pond very little) and it's difficult for me to build one in a short time. At this point I'd need a job to build a network and a network to get a job. What would you recommend?
    Thank you

    • ecofluence Reply

      That's a tough one. You can go strictly off your resume… but a network and references hold a lot of weight. I would start with whatever contacts you have that brought you to the U.S. Start there, and tell them what you're looking for. Also, start attending every event in the city related to the job / industry you're interested in. Don't just hand out cards.. invite people to lunch/coffee. First, learn about them, ask a lot of questions — and be a great listener. Don't ask them for a job directly… Share a compelling story about what you're up to in life, and ask them if they have any advice to share. Everyone likes a story, and everyone likes to give advice… and it's the best way to respect their opinion without pretense. Just take notes, don't rebuttal anything they offer. Just say "Thank you" and use it… if it's valuable. If they have some way to help or know of a job, they will likely offer it — as long as you are polite and not demanding (and stay in touch / give them you contact info).

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