Show Me the Money

April 1, 2014

Valuing Sustainability Expertise

by Alexa Bach-McElrone MEM’03

“So, what exactly do you do?”

After a decade as a sustainability advisor to nonprofits, small businesses, corporations, government agencies and entrepreneurs, I still answer this question weekly. I’ve learned to skip most of the ambiguous language and, instead, speak in terms of my true value to an employer or client, because ultimately, that is what makes the most difference to my career development and to the fulfillment I feel in my work.

What do I mean?

Last year, I drove strategy for a social enterprise that went from fledgling to top 10 in their realm in less than a year.

Yes, I directed communications, defined “sustainable,” coordinated philanthropic outreach, built the team, etc. But, the skills involved in those pursuits dilute the most obvious and fundamental value—if the business doesn’t succeed then nothing else will either. If I had marketed myself specifically as a communications specialist, I may have been awarded a small portion of the total contract. But, speaking about driving growth and recognition (both critical for new entities of any type) allowed me to use my same skill set to take on a much more substantial role and command a bigger salary.

I will be honest, in a world described by often-ambiguous intangibles (sustainable/ green/eco/organic), it is a lot easier to quickly pinpoint a specific skill you have (i.e., policy or GHG analysis) versus jumping into the value of the big picture.

Despite the challenge, I suggest you strive to pinpoint value instead—what someone is really willing to pay/hire you for. Value may be defined by aligned ideals (you may not be the most experienced candidate, but if your personal mission is completely in sync with that of your employer or client it will save them significant time and money in the long run). Or, value may be defined by the process (i.e. helping the vice president of facilities turn their dying sustainability program into a corporate pride point by scaling the successes of one factory and creating a new standard operating procedure). Either way, communicating your value is a much more personal discussion than listing your skill set.

Not sure how to do this? When speaking to a potential employer, client, or customer, use these five tips for devising a message that will truly resonate and demonstrate your value to their program:

  1. Use plain English. Avoid any possible confusion—or unintended controversy—and go right to the heart of the matter.
  2. Become a doctor. Not literally. Diagnose the pain points of your employer or client, and speak to those—often very personal—needs versus distinct skills. Someone may advertise for help with a specific task, but look deeper for the ‘why.’ Are they completely swamped, working long days and would love to make it home earlier? Is the company reorganizing and they are worried about job security? Has their organization not secured a significant grant in more than a year? What can you do to help them?
  3. Know your customer/client/employer. Once you know them, speak to their needs and desires not your own (with one exception, see #4). Show that you know where they are and describe how you can help assuage their pain—or take them in a new direction if you think it warrants that. Simultaneously demonstrate you care, you’re aware, you’re smart, and that you’re a solution-finder.
  4. Think big! Many of us have similar training and skills on a résumé. No one has your particular ideas or passion. Speak from the heart. Explain what you really want to do—even if it sounds crazy—and phrase it in terms of your employer’s or client’s needs. Honesty and intelligence resonate.
  5. Be succinct.

This is the second Career Matters by Alexa Bach-McElrone MEM ’03, who is founder and principal of Bach-McElrone Consulting, a strategy and communications firm driving innovation and leadership in sustainable business.