An argument for the career “path less traveled” on the road to a sustainable future


Robert Frost has so much to tell us about career paths in his famous poem, The Road Not Taken. Quoting from the concluding stanza:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, 
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

As one begins a post-graduate career, if your passion is sustainable business, or more generally, and ambitiously, a sustainable world; which is ‘the path less traveled?’ I would argue it is the parts of a large organization that are NOT most associated with sustainability, nor is it even those advocacy groups that have sustainability as their primary mission. The paths less traveled and the individuals who take them and can have the most impact, or as Frost more elegantly puts it, make “all the difference,” often, first achieve great success in more traditional parts of an organization.

My most poignant memory from the 2009 Kyoto Protocol meeting (COP-15) held in Copenhagen occurred at one of the ubiquitous side events. A panel of business people were giving very animated and inspiring descriptions of how they were turning society’s environmental challenges into business opportunities, or helping to transform their enterprises into ones that had incorporated sustainable business into their strategic architecture. Each presenter was firmly planted in the baby boom generation, most in the leading wave of what some would describe as a self-absorbed demographic pig in the python. During the question and answer session a European graduate student raised her hand, and after politely thanking the presenters for their good works, plaintively made a simple request, “won’t you please hire us?”  The questioner, I would estimate was already in her late twenties or even early thirties, and like many of her generation, was well armed with knowledge and commitment, but frustrated by the lack of opportunity to put what she had learned to work.  The sad fact was that she was trying to enter the workforce in the midst of the greatest “peacetime” global economic collapse since the 1930s, and the incumbent professionals were either in no hurry to retire, or had been told by their governments that early retirement was no longer an option. Economic prospects, particularly in Europe, have continued to decline since 2009.

She may have been deliberately limiting her job selection choices in the incorrect assumption that the most direct path to business transformation lay with advocacy organizations, government, or business functions specifically denominated as being focused on “sustainability” or the environment.  A better discussion might have been about the career arcs of the panelists who found themselves in Copenhagen as thought leaders helping large organizations transform their business models into ones that could thrive in a more sustainability focused world. For the baby boomer panelists, I would wager that they had two things in common: first, their educational background was not focused on sustainable business principles; and second, that their rise in their organization was marked by outstanding individual contributions to generating profitability under the older, and some would say, less enlightened model.

This is not to suggest that sustainable business education is counterproductive—quite the opposite—or that a career spent in the environment, health and safety part of a company or similarly focused ngo cannot make a tremendous contribution. My argument is that large corporations are more favorably disposed to tackle the sort of complex problems presented when the business is otherwise successful than when it is on life support. In the individual firm, in theory, all positive economic value added (EVA) projects can and should be funded.  It is rare for any garden-variety sustainability initiative proposed in a corporation (especially if advanced by a capable Erb Institute graduate) to fail to meet the test of generating positive EVA. The challenge in a world of constrained capital is to win the internal competition with other proposed positive EVA projects. In a perfect world, the sustainability of any proposed project would be a sine qua non of it even being considered. In the real world, the overall state of the business and the economy in which it operates affects where on the corporate version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that sustainability initiatives find themselves—and on the personal level—where the sustainability officers find themselves on a company’s strategic planning agenda. Furthermore, solutions proposed by an individual contributor, well-schooled in sustainable business principles, are more likely to be positively received, if that individual has already demonstrated outstanding performance in, and appreciation for the organization’s core business.

In late 2009, and today, jobs for new graduates of any kind are hard to come by, but it is important for those passionate about helping to shape a more sustainable world to understand and celebrate assignments and time spent learning and proving oneself in the core of a business, and helping the overall enterprise to be successful. In fact, demonstrated success in these areas can sometimes be a prerequisite for assuming roles that can truly transform a large organization. A rising economic tide allows the enterprise to a take a longer view and pursue more ambitious objectives—with a talented new generation eager to lead the way.  In the future, the Erb Institute might come to measure the extent to which it will have truly succeeded in its mission when the greatest percentage of its graduates in the “C” suite are not Chief Sustainability Officers, but rather CEOs, CFOs, and COOs.

Read the 2013 Executive Perspective Blog Series by Tom Catania, Erb Executive-in-Residence:

Through this blog series, I am initiating what I hope to be a regular set of commentaries organized around harnessing the power of business enterprises in ways that address society’s policy challenges, which is at the core of the mission of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. The views expressed here are my own and should not be interpreted as representing the views of the Erb Institute, the University of Michigan, or any of my former employers, or organizations of which I am a member.