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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Feeling stuck in your sustainability job? Here are 8 steps to reclaim your job satisfaction

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I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with friends who have achieved the professional sustainability dream. They’re working at prestigious organizations, they’re running big programs — they’ve made it! Unfortunately, they’re not feeling as content as they had expected to be.

There are lots of reasons that can lead to dissatisfaction with our work. Burnout is a huge one, and I highly recommend the advice from the experts at Regenerous and Via Lucent for managing that. But many complaints I hear are about the organizations that people are working for: There’s either not enough room to grow, or the impact they’re making isn’t inspiring enough.  

If your job isn’t quite cutting it for you these days, here are eight steps that can help you to either find new ways to make it work or make the best of things as you prepare to move on to something more fulfilling:

1. Pinpoint what is driving your dissatisfaction

If you’re feeling a general sense of dissatisfaction with your role or organization, take the time to really think about why. Here are some common reasons:

  • You’re ready to grow but you’re on a small team with no promotion or growth opportunities, and it doesn’t look like your manager is leaving anytime soon.
  • Your role is focused on the parts of sustainability that don’t inspire or energize you.
  • The issues you’re working on aren’t making an impact in the way you had hoped.
  • Senior leadership is unwilling or unable to set meaningful or ambitious goals.
  • Sustainability has been deprioritized or never was a true priority at your organization.
  • Budget cuts or layoffs have limited what your team can accomplish.

2. Appreciate the positives

Acknowledging all of the good things that your current role is providing can go a long way to helping you establish a positive mindset for whatever comes next. Here are some things you might be thankful for: 

  • You are employed: A paycheck is something to be thankful for in today’s economy.
  • You have the gift of time: You can properly invest in the research, networking and preparation that will help you land the right role.
  • You can be picky: If you learn something you don’t like about a position you’re applying for, it’s not the end of the world — you’ve still got a job.
  • You’ve developed skills: Celebrate the skills you’ve been able to pick up, master or reinforce in your current role.
  • You’ve accomplished something: Acknowledge that any impact you’ve been able to make, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.
  • You have work-life balance: If you are working a role that you can do in your sleep or your organization isn’t prioritizing, that leaves a little room to log off at a reasonable hour or not stress about it during your time off.
  • Other perks: Maybe you’re able to work remotely, or maybe you have an honest-to-goodness work friend — name and be grateful for all of these positives.

3. Gain some perspective

It’s possible that the grass is actually greener on your side of the fence. Social media can sometimes mislead us into comparing our average day with other people’s highlight reels. This can be especially true during Earth Month when everyone is announcing new goals and achievements, or in November when it feels like the entire world (except you) is at COP.

Acknowledging all of the good things that your current role is providing can go a long way to helping you establish a positive mindset for whatever comes next.

But things at other organizations may not be all that they seem and talking shop is a great way to learn about these realities while building your network. Reach out to your peers in similar roles at other organizations and ask if they’d be open to comparing notes about something you’re working on. If you form a great connection with them, you can also ask if they actually are on track to meet their goals, if they really do have executive support, or what their experiences with career advancement have been like.  

4. Put effort into improving your current situation 

Have you ever actually told your manager what you want? Sometimes we think it’s obvious that we’re interested in a promotion or want to take on new projects. But oftentimes we haven’t said anything directly, and our manager simply hasn’t thought about it. As Yale professor Zoe Chance shared at GreenBiz 24, and in her wonderful book “Influence is Your Superpower,” it’s incredible what we’re able to achieve simply by asking for what we want. 

Talk with your manager and see if you can come up with creative ways to help you grow in your current position. You could help them prepare for their presentation to the board on the ESG regulatory landscape, you could start a draft of the climate scenario analysis they’ve been meaning to do, or you could reach out to that business partner to evaluate the collaboration idea you’ve been talking about. Come to those discussions prepared with ideas, and keep your attitude positive and constructive.   

5. Look for other ways to meet your impact needs 

Those of us in sustainability ask a lot from our work — income, intellectual challenge, career advancement and personal fulfillment, just to name a few. That’s a tall order for any job, and if you find yourself in a role that doesn’t quite make enough of an impact or the right kind of impact for you, consider looking for non-work-related ways to close that gap.

If your role is feeling too far removed from the tangible results of your work, look for opportunities that offer you a front-row seat to your impact. Volunteer to support a restoration project, help run a food pantry, consult with small businesses or local governments pro bono or organize a grassroots advocacy campaign. If you’re feeling like your work isn’t making a big enough impact, try supporting organizations whose work advances sustainable business practices at scale such as professional networks, industry associations or large nonprofits. 

6. Connect with community

Connecting with the amazing people in climate and sustainability communities can do wonders for reigniting your passion for this work. It’s also a great way to help you ease back into networking for the job search and start getting your name out there.

If your role is feeling too far removed from the tangible results of your work, look for opportunities that offer you a front row seat to your impact.

Groups with friends from your past such as alumni associations and professional networks such as the Trellis Network or Reconsidered give you the opportunity to reconnect and remember how much you’ve accomplished together. Communities such as #OpenDoorClimate or Work On Climate allow you to use your skills and experience to help others. Try joining one and feel all the warm fuzzies that come from seeing old colleagues, giving advice to job seekers or sharing tips and resources with peers. 

7. Define what your non-negotiables are 

Moving to a new job means more hustle, at least at the start, and perhaps different expectations, culture or work-life balance. If you’ve taken all of the above steps and are committed to moving on, get clear about what “better” looks like so you don’t trade one bad situation for another. Here are some things to consider: 

  • Flexibility: Office location, remote work options, schedule autonomy
  • Scope of role: Level of seniority, salary, priority impact issues, functional focus
  • Office culture: Attitudes toward work life balance, time off, socialization, training
  • Sustainability journey: Starting a new program, rescuing a stalled program, growing a program or maintaining a program
  • Reporting and regulatory environment: Publicly traded companies, private companies, government agencies and nonprofits all have different regulations and reporting cycles that can significantly affect how you spend your time
  • Level of organizational ambition: Would you be happy working somewhere that isn’t willing to set a zero-waste or science-based target, or is that a dealbreaker? 
  • Material or priority issues: Does the organization balance their work in all three areas of ESG? Are they working on emerging areas, or just classic decarbonization topics?

8. Build skills and experience while you job search

Your current organization likely has some fantastic resources you may not have fully explored yet. If you have access to internal training resources, a training budget, or time to pursue training on your own, take the opportunity to invest in yourself and build skills that can help you be more effective and competitive for your next role. There are hundreds of training ideas here

You could also take up your own side project such as a gap analysis of your company’s sustainability reporting against the new International Financial Reporting Standards or a landscape analysis of how your competitors are handling a sustainability issue you care about. These are projects you can do independently and result in findings that you could share with your team and add to your resume. Just remember not to let your normal responsibilities slide.

Take the opportunity to invest in yourself and build skills that can help you be more effective and competitive for your next role.

Good luck

I wish you the very best of luck as you attempt to reclaim your job satisfaction in sustainability. I hope these ideas have helped to inspire your next steps for either finding a way to make your current situation work better for you or moving on to bigger and better things. If you’re ready to launch a full-scale job search, there are hundreds of free resources on my website to get you started. 

Have you tried any of these? What has worked well for you? Please join the conversation on LinkedIn.

[Join sustainability professionals driving transformation across their organizations with Trellis Network.] 



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