Working in sustainability is a desire I (fortunately) see growing amongst our Hult community. But when it comes to applying for jobs, many questions come up: ‘do I need an environmental-related management?’, ‘do I have the skills needed?’ and many more. With sustainability being increasingly integral to many companies, you can now enter this sector through multiple doors, not only as the technical professional. Yet, an understanding of how this industry recruits is extremely helpful. For this reason, I invited Caitlin Murrell, Acre’s Head of Research for Continental Europe, specialising in assisting pan-European clients in recruiting for sustainability and green finance.

Estela Pilz: If I could start asking you to briefly describe what Acre is and what does it work with?

Caitlin Murrell: Acre is a purpose-driven recruitment consultancy. We’ve been around for 17 years, and are headquartered in London. We’ve been working for all that time within the global market on roles that are having impact, anything really broadly from sustainability managers through to managing impact driven investment funds, energy consultancies, ESG, not-for-profit, etc. Of course, the landscape has changed significantly in those 17 years. Our business has grown to meet the need for future-focused professionals, and last year we celebrated the launch of our first satellite office in New York […] which was a success. There was an opportunity to keep growing the business globally, so last year we took the decision to open up an office in the Benelux, which is where I now sit! We’ve recently grown to a small team of four in Amsterdam, and I’ve been energised to be part of that growth. At the moment our core focus is on hiring roles centred on sustainability, or that contribute to the clean energy transition. But we do work on senior environmental, social and governance roles as well.

EP: What kind of roles there are and what it means to work with sustainability? I know that there are a few areas, there are few doors from which you can enter in the industry, so just briefly what are these areas and what kind of roles there are.

CM: This year has been, of course, very different and disrupted. On the positive side, there are many professionals who have been working hard to heighten the impact of the ESG (environmental, social and government) agenda within the investor and financial community for over a decade. Because of current events, which have brought to fruition some risks that were previously considered far flung in the future, and the subsequent positive performance of future-focused funds and assets within the market, there’s been a large boost in hiring of new leadership roles. There is a lot of demand from investors now for organizations to be reporting on ESG but also just genuinely doing better and understanding their impact on the world.

Some trends that I have been noticing in general in the market was a stratification of the sustainability profession. So five years ago, if you were looking to get a role in sustainability in the corporate space, what that would tend to look like is you would get hired as a data analyst or a sustainability coordinator. And then you might go on top slowly throughout that progression is in a pure sustainability team that’s up by itself as a side of the organization talks to different parts of the business about ‘how do we improve our environmental performance’, ‘how do we secure our supply chain’, how do we talk about what we’re doing’. And this has evolved a lot, particularly in the Netherlands, I’m seeing a lot more roles at the moment that require specialists within different disciplines.

If you’ve got people in your course, who are looking for sustainability roles, this is kind of good news, because we’re seeing the need for professionals who are sustainability-proficient, but have a niche in a specific industry or business function. A client may need a real estate specialist who can horizon scan for sustainability trends for their portfolio, a corporate may need a sustainability specialist with a deep knowledge of supply chains to sit within procurement, or marketing and communications lead who knows how to translate market demand into a valuable sustainability proposition — sustainability is becoming more embedded within businesses, which I consider to be more impactful and progressive.

EP: Indeed, I think it is very important that sustainability is embedded throughout the whole organization. The next question wanted to ask is, do you believe that for us, business graduates, it is important to pursue a more technical environmental-focused postgraduate course? Or is just work experience within the industry sufficient?

CM: That’s a really good question. I would say it depends on which area of the industry that you want to end up in. For example, in the Netherlands, you might have seen that the circular economy is becoming an increasingly relevant topic as the result of strong local and EU policies – I also think the focus on making a system better, together, resonates well here. But, when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, and particularly entry level and early stage roles, a specialist role in circularity can require proficiency in product life cycle assessments, materials development and policy analysis. If that were an area that business graduates were wanting to pursue, I would recommend doing a more specialized masters within that area.

That said, another area that is very prevalent, has been for many years and will continue to be is something like sustainability reporting and communications, which has a data element to it, but is a lot more around project management, stakeholder management, and coordinating different areas of the business. So, if you have a business background, and you can understand and relate to these different departments, then that’s going to be quite advantageous as well.

And I definitely advocate for taking internships or traineeships. Ourselves [Acre], we are often called upon to place people with specialist expertise. And most of the time, we are working in the mid to executive level of the market. But corporations do not necessarily have that same level of stringency when they are looking for people at the early stages. Can I work with this person? Do they have passion? Do they have energy? Do they have proactivity? I see a lot of trainees who have moved into sustainability later in their careers, because they kind of came at it from an element of I’m really passionate about this topic, I see where I can apply that skill set, and I’m going pursue relationships in that area wholeheartedly.  

EP: I saw that Acre has a branch called Acre Frameworks, which is focused on talent development. If I may ask, what are the skills that the industry is needing? And what are companies usually looking for?

CM: Yes – Acre Frameworks is our in-house assessment and talent development service. I often use the insights gathered from our competency assessments to enhance the recruitment process. The purpose is not to inform a recruitment outcome, but allow both parties to understand how someone’s work based preferences or leadership styles are going to impact their performance in a role or their fit for an organization as a whole. […]

Acre Frameworks also provide talent development solutions for organizations, particularly within the health and safety space, where we support our clients to identify non-technical skill gaps in their teams and offer targeted coaching and development programmes to close them. In the purpose driven industries, one of the essential skills is being able to influence across a wide range of stakeholders, all the way from an entry level analyst through to the executive board. Now, because you’ll often be part of a leanly resourced team, or a sole contributor, you need to be able to drive change through others in the organization. It’s important for others to buy into the sustainability vision and understand what the impact is for them. I think you need to be taught many different business languages as well, and understand where different people come from. Otherwise, there’s the risk of being that sustainability person on the side-lines. If you have commercial acumen you can have a deeper understanding of the priorities of various stakeholders.

EP: Last question, from the perspective of a recruiter, what is a key piece of advice you could give us, business graduates, to enter the sustainability industry?

CM: Don’t be afraid to get out there and network! The sustainability community is quite tight knit, particularly in the Netherlands. There’s a lot to be gained by just talking to people because the industry is constantly changing and evolving, the skill sets we’re looking for are changing and evolving alongside it. Having someone who can vouch for your skills and passion can make a difference. So, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to a recruiter or someone you admire within the space and just try and learn a bit more about their work. There’s also great forums out there, who bring people together on a virtual and physical basis to start understanding more about the industry.

EP: I’m a big believer in the power of networking, and it’s amazing to hear that also you’re your perspective. Because, as you said, it’s an industry that is changing a lot. And what is continuous is your values, your connections, your relationships, I think that’s something very important to nurture.

CM: I completely agree with you on that. I think that the relationships are what really pull you through at the end of the day.

EP: So I’m gonna wrap this up. But thank you so much for taking your time. This was very helpful for me and I’m very excited to share this material with my colleagues. And again, thank you so, so much!

CM: Well, thank you for inviting me!

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