Moving on up

26th November 2015


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Author

Marion Hofmann

On their own, technical skills and knowledge will not take you to the top of the career ladder. Paul Suff finds out what more is required

Soft skills, such as communication, are increasingly the attributes employers most value in the workplace, especially at senior levels. This is exemplified by the "storytelling" skills required by Lego as it seeks a new vice-president of corporate responsibility. Chief among the successful candidate's duties will be to provide strategic leadership of the company's corporate responsibility activities, which, as well as a global record in a similar role, will require: excellent problem-solving, global leadership and analytical skills; and the ability to engage with stakeholders at all levels, and be an excellent communicator and storyteller.

The Danish toy company is not alone in wanting senior staff to possess good soft skills. Transport company First Group is looking for a group head of environment. The role will involve leading the formulation of the organisation's five-year environmental strategy and objectives, and working closely with the five divisions to challenge and support the development of their environmental plans, targets and key performance indicators.

Candidates will need to be environmental experts, with Chartered status, and be a member of IEMA or equivalent. Among the other skills required are: a proven ability to successfully influence, engage and gain buy-in for change at the highest levels of the organisation across a range of countries and cultures; strong commercial awareness; political astuteness and judgment; and excellent written and verbal communication and interpersonal skills, along with a proven record of managing others and developing teams.

Both roles provide an indication of the business acumen and type of broader aptitudes and knowledge, such as strong communication and influencing skills that practitioners need if they are to become leaders in the environmental sector.

Increasingly, less senior roles also require a broader range of capabilities as well as technical knowledge. A recent advert for a graduate trainee environmental officer at a county council expected the successful applicant to be a good communicator. And the key requirements for a sustainability adviser role with a construction company included confidence in presenting ideas to senior management and assisting with developing and delivering employee training alongside technical competence and IEMA membership.

The art of communication

IEMA has long recognised the need for practitioners to equip themselves with communication and leadership skills. Its skills map, first published in 2011, lists the range of competences professionals need at different times in their careers, including those on analytical and communication skills, so members can plan their own professional development. The institute is finalising a revised map and this will include a section on core skills.

These are described as distinct skills sets relevant to anyone working in environment and sustainability, including communication, leadership for change, project and programme management, and problem solving. Some of the core skills that cut across all areas are already in the skills map but the range is being expanded.

The demand for environment and sustainability practitioners to be good communicators will increase with this year's changes to ISO 14001, the international standard for environment management systems.

In the August edition of the environmentalist, IEMA members Lucy Candlin and Ben Vivian described the revised clause on communication as potentially scary, and forecast that it could turn out to be one of the most challenging for environment professionals and organisations. 14001: 2015 requires senior management to play an active role in the EMS; they will no longer be able to simply delegate to a representative key elements of the system and consider that an end to their involvement.

Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor at IEMA and a member of the group that revised the standard, believes the degree of engagement by top management will depend largely on the messages delivered by environment practitioners. "The standard provides further impetus for practitioners to engage the senior management team," he says.

How practitioners deliver those messages and the language they adopt will be crucial to whether they are heard. In February's environmentalist, independent environment consultant Anya Ledwith at ESHCon advised professionals to look again at the IEMA skills map to ensure they develop the skills and knowledge to communicate effectively with their organisation's leaders and to make the most of the opportunities presented by 14001: 2015 to raise their professional position.

Effective communication is one so-called soft skills employers require of their workers. Despite being an increasingly important competence in most occupations, a report published in January by fast-food chain McDonald's found that the standard of soft skills in many UK workplaces was poor. The study estimated that 535,000 workers would be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020. According to The value of soft skills to the UK economy, these attributes encompass an individual's ability to listen well, communicate effectively, build trust, work well with others and manage time effectively.

The six linked soft skills sets that are vital for all UK workers, says the report, are: communication and interpersonal skills; teamwork; time and self-management; decision-making and initiative-taking; and taking responsibility (see panel, p.x). It claimed these skills are worth more than £8.8 billion in gross value to the UK economy each year. "If the current weaknesses in the UK's soft skills base are not addressed, we face an economic penalty that will impact on sectors, businesses, individuals and society as a whole," it states.

The language of business

The environment and sustainability profession is riddled with acronyms, which, coupled with the technical language that practitioners often use, can make their message impenetrable. Mark Gough, executive director at the Natural Capital Coalition, told the audience of professionals at the second IEMA national sustainability conference in October that they ought to learn to engage others in their organisation. "We have our own language and acronyms. We understand them but others may not. We need to understand better what other departments do," he said.

A better understanding of business and strategy could help overcome any language barriers and should be core skills for aspiring environment and sustainability professionals. On engaging others on the energy savings opportunity scheme (ESOS), Stephen Barker, head of energy efficiency and environmental care at Siemens UK, told the environmentalist: "Too often, environment and energy practitioners fall back into explaining the technical details of a solution. That won't win over the board. You need to talk in business terms. We need to move from talking about products to talking about the business benefits. A finance director doesn't want to know about variable speed drives, for example. He or she is interested in what installing them will do for the company."

Framing a discussion about climate change in terms of energy and energy efficiency, for example, can be more persuasive. "It is a language that businesses understand," says Sara Fry, senior environment, health and safety manager at engineering company Edwards.

Contributors to the My career page in the environmentalist regularly identify communication as one of the most important skills in their role and offer advice on how to get their message across. Olivia Preston, environment risk manager at BBC Workplace, advises practitioners to adopt language different stakeholders respond to. "Not everyone is won over with 'hearts and minds', but if you translate opportunities into financial savings or as a 'unique selling point' against competitors, you'll have a better chance of influencing," she said.

The revised 14001 standard demands that practitioners hone their business knowledge to ensure messages have resonance across their organisation. 14001: 2015 requires EMS teams to understand the constraints and opportunities presented by environmental impacts in the context of their organisation. "If practitioners can demonstrate to the leadership how the EMS is effective in helping the organisation deal with threats and opportunities, they will be in position to have credible conversations with top management," says Baxter. "But to be able to do that well, they need to understand their business, how it impacts the environment and how the environment impacts the business."

Sharpening skills

Several IEMA qualifications require evidence of good communication and other interpersonal skills. Successfully achieving IEMA Associate status requires members to be able to communicate effectively with internal and external stakeholders as well as understand how to influence behaviour and implement change to improve sustainability. The managing with environmental sustainability courses from IEMA, run by training providers such as EEF and RRC, cover communication. Similarly, module three (strategic environmental management) of the IEMA diploma in sustainable business practice includes personal effectiveness, such as persuasion and influencing skills.

Some practitioners might want to sharpen further their soft skills. IEMA's mentoring scheme is one way for both mentors and mentees to do so. Amy Gray, sustainable development officer at Aberdeen City Council and IEMA mentor, says mentoring has helped her build leadership and communication skills.

Volunteering activities can help people develop soft skills. In the CIPD's 2014 report, Volunteering to learn: employee development through community action, the body for HR professionals in the UK identified 10 key skills and behaviours employees can develop through these activities, such as coaching and mentoring, confidence, communication, team-building, self-awareness and creativity. For environment and sustainability practitioners wanting to move into leadership and management roles, the CIPD says volunteering can help to develop the key skills they need, such as coaching, mentoring, communication, creativity, team-building and time management.

Practitioners might also want to check what massive open online courses or MOOCs (see feature pp.iii–vi) are available. As the author, IEMA Fellow and Chartered environmentalist Richard Campen, points out, some professionals may benefit from MOOCs as an introduction to topics related to generic roles, such as business administration and marketing, or soft skills, such as communication. Chicago's Northwestern University is one institution that offers a series of five organisational leadership MOOCs, including a four-week course on leadership communication (bit.ly/1Wwan97).

The skills gap

Universities tend not to equip graduates with soft skills. A poll of more than 600 employers by YouGov in 2013 found that few graduates were "work ready", with half of new recruits lacking basic attributes, such as teamwork and communication.

But it is not just a problem among young workers. Data accompanying the McDonald's report revealed that 97% of the senior managers believe soft skills are important to business success, while 75% of employers identified a soft-skills gap in the UK workforce. As the report notes: "Employees who lack them are not just a minor irritant for employers: they can cause major problems for business and result in diminished productivity, competitiveness and profitability."

Soft skills can be developed on the job through training courses or extra-curricular activities, such as volunteering. Environment and sustainability professionals looking to further their careers would do well to take every opportunity to improve theirs.

Six soft skills sets

Communication

Effective listening

Accurate and concise communication.

Effective oral communication.

Communicate pleasantly and professionally.

Effective written communication.

Ask good questions.

Communicate appropriately using social media.

Decision-making and problem solving

Identify and analyse problems.

Take effective and appropriate action.

Realise the effect of decisions.

Creative and innovative solutions.

Transfer knowledge between situations.

Engage in life-long learning.

Think abstractly about problems.

Self management

Efficient work habits.

Self-starting.

Well-developed ethics and sense of loyalty.

Sense of urgency to address and complete tasks.

Work well under pressure.

Adapt and apply appropriate technology.

Dedication to continuing professional development.

Teamwork

Productive as a team member.

Positive and encouraging attitude.

Punctual and meet
deadlines.

Maintain accountability to the team.

Work with multiple approaches.

Aware of and sensitive to diversity.

Share ideas to multiple audiences.

Professionalism

Effective relationships with customers, businesses and the public.

Accept critique and direction in the workplace.

Trustworthy with sensitive information.

Understands role and has realistic career expectations.

Deals effectively with ambiguity.

Maintain appropriate decorum and demeanour.

Select appropriate mentors and sources of advice.

Leadership

See the 'big picture' and think strategically.

Recognise when to lead and when to follow.

Respect and acknowledge contributions from others.

Recognise and deal effectively with conflict.

Build professional relationships.

Motivate and lead others.

Recognise when change is needed, and contribute to the change effort.

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