A profession on the move

22nd March 2011

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IEMA chief executive Jan Chmiel tells the environmentalist that the profession is on the cusp of fundamental change

Ask IEMA chief executive Jan Chmiel how environment professionals in business will operate in the future and he describes them as acting as “change agents”.

“The way the environment is impacting on organisations is changing and businesses recognise this. It’s no longer just about how organisations impact on the environment, there is a growing recognition that the natural environment is increasingly placing limits on how they operate. Businesses will need to change if they are to deal effectively with resource efficiency, ecosystems services and biodiversity as well as manage environment across their whole value chain,” says Chmiel.

He believes that the change businesses will have to undergo to successfully overcome the environmental challenges facing them going forward provides a unique opportunity for the profession. “The environment is no longer just a reputational issue, nor is it only about doing a few things like compliance and carbon management well,” he observes.

“It’s an increasingly complex and integrated set of issues and managing them will fundamentally change the way organisations create value. What is being recognised is that, in future, the environment will be key to driving value creation and competitive advantage. Organisations will no longer be able to manage it in a top-down ‘command and control’ way; the whole organisation will have to respond to environmental challenges. That will require a wholesale change from within. That’s a challenge to the profession. They need to lead the transition.”

Equipping the profession with the skills required to effectively exercise that role will be the main focus of IEMA activity over the next few years, he says.

The future

From his conversations with IEMA members and business leaders since becoming chief executive in November 2009, Chmiel has developed a clearer picture of the profession and what IEMA needs to do to put it at the heart of organisational change – a role he believes it is currently collectively finding challenging.

“I’ve met environmental professionals who are at the top of their game and who are driving change. But that is not the bulk of professionals, so there is a role for IEMA to get the profession to rise to this challenge.”

He has discovered a degree of frustration in the business community, which, rightly or wrongly, believes environmental professionals lack the skills to think and communicate strategically.

He recounts the example of a drinks company dealing with water scarcity in Africa to highlight this problem: “The company wanted its environmentalists to adopt a more strategic approach. But the environmentalists were focused on the technical aspects of water abstraction rather than fully understanding the wider social and economic implications and working with stakeholders to better manage access.”

The flip side is that some environmental professionals are keen to play a more central role, but are unable to because of organisational inertia. He says there is a perception among some environmental professionals that there is a “green ceiling”, where the focus is only on compliance and is linked to health and safety. “I talked to a young IEMA member in the construction industry,” recalls Chmiel.

“She was passionate about the environment but felt stuck in a compliance role. She believed her direct boss didn’t understand the impact or the importance of her role. I pointed out to her that the global sustainability director at one of the biggest construction firms in the world is on the IEMA board, so it is possible in her industry to make a difference.

"What she has to do – and this is where the role of IEMA is crucial – is to understand what is going on and how she can help her organisation change. She needs to look at organisations where change is being made, where things are altering. It is really up to them to start the dialogue.”

His discussions also reveal that some organisations do not make the most of their in-house environmental expertise. “I’ve had conversations with senior people about sustainability and they talk about environmental issues, but they do not make the link between the two. They’ll talk about water, carbon etc, but when I ask about the environmentalists in their own organisation, they say their focus is compliance,” he says.

“It’s strange: they have environmental issues and have specialists sitting somewhere in their organisation that know about these things, but they don’t use them. That’s why IEMA needs to raise the profile of the profession.”

And Chmiel has encountered environmental professionals who have switched from compliance to a sustainability role who feel uncomfortable in their new position because they lack some of the necessary skills.

“They often do not have the social and economic knowledge or the communication and influencing skills to be able to talk to their peers and superiors in a way that demonstrates business acumen. Again, IEMA has a role to play in equipping them with the necessary skill set.”

IEMA’s supporting role

So, what is IEMA’s strategy to place the profession at the heart of change? “There are three elements to our approach: frameworks, facilitation and leadership. They are key to any membership body but even more so when there is such a need for movement and change,” explains Chmiel.

The first strand, frameworks, has several aspects, including putting in place a structured horizon-scanning process that involves IEMA members looking at what they think will be important to their organisations over the coming months and years. IEMA is also developing – with members, training providers and businesses – the first competency framework for the profession.

“This is not an academic exercise; organisations are asking for this. I get telephone calls from people in industry asking for IEMA to develop a competency framework for them. Creating the framework will give members a clear picture, given their own aspirations, of how to get from A to B,” comments Chmiel.

He believes that professional development is vital if environmental professionals are going to succeed in making a difference and fill important roles. “There are jobs and roles to be created that do not currently exist. The chief sustainability officer role wasn’t a job three or four years ago.” The third framework involves placing IEMA activities in one of three themes: sustainable business practice, impact assessment, and the natural environment.

He finds the second strand of IEMA strategy, facilitation, particularly exciting. “There are now so many ways to reach people. The IEMA website and the new-look environmentalist is part of that, but there are other channels, such as social networks. If you go to the IEMA LinkedIn page, there are really interesting conversations taking place,” he observes.

Chmiel explains that the institute must focus on facilitating input, and says the organisation’s 2010 survey and report on greenhouse-gas reporting was an excellent example of how this should work: “We had around 2,000 responses and you realise that if IEMA facilitates a discussion on an important topic it is of enormous value to policymakers.”

Leadership is the final element of the three-pronged approach IEMA is pursuing to raise the profile of the profession. Chmiel describes this as IEMA being the collective voice of the profession on both the national and international stage. “If you talk to sustainability directors, yes, they are interested in compliance issues at a national level, but they are also thinking about how they manage their global businesses. IEMA also has to adopt that mindset.”

So, what changes will IEMA members see over the next year or so and how can they get involved? “More opportunity to contribute, shape and learn. The competency framework will be launched and will help members develop their own competencies to progress their career and move the profession forward.

"But, if you want to get into a leadership role, you don’t just need training. You also need to network effectively and read the environmentalist, because it is now much more integrated with IEMA’s vision for the profession. This year we’ll be working closely with on our regions. So if you want to get involved, become active. Join a regional group, contribute to our surveys. There are plenty of things you can do. Our volunteers are always our first port of call.”

Leading the change

In his opinion, business leaders now recognise the importance of sustainability and that it is forcing their organisations to change, but Chmiel says that at the moment they do not automatically look to environmental professionals to deliver that change. “That needs to change,” he says.

“We, both as a body and as a profession, need to ensure that the experts, the environmental professionals, are the ones business leaders turn to. If we are not up to the challenge, then there is a danger that the environmental sustainability agenda in businesses will be driven by somebody else, which in the long run will benefit neither the organisations nor the environment!”

Read the full survey results:

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