The statements and opinions herein are
solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations or individuals associated with the author, past or present.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The sustainability job interview: it’s not about you

Nothing we accomplish happens without the buy-in, partnerships, collaborations, leadership, and energy of many people. 

By Dave Newport

Probably because I have bombed more interviews than Charles Manson at the parole board, people keep asking me for advise about their upcoming interview for sustainability-something at such-and-such college.

Yes, I have a lot of experience; but remember experience in your career means you have broken more stuff than most...

The good news is apparently there are more job opportunities for sustainability professionals lately. I hope that’s true and keeps going.

Anyway, I have thought about the jobs for which I was a lock that I didn’t get.  A couple of themes emerged when I reflected on this “experience.”

First, being recruited for a job is a trap. It sounds nice and feels good because somebody wants you, or so it seems. However, recruiters really just want to put a well-rounded variety of candidates in front of their clients. They don’t want you, they want plausible options. For that, they get paid.

Likewise, for those of us with ego issues (looking in the mirror now), it’s easy to feel a recruiter’s love –or the search committee’s love--and swell with pride and wax “all about me.” Even if you try to keep that under wraps, it can leak through. Nothing puts an interview into the ditch faster than a candidate driving home how well he/she can do the job with even a hint of hubris showing.

The point of this may sound counter-intuitive but hear me out: the sustainability job interview is not about you. 

Case in point is my first job interview coming out of college back before Man discovered fire. There were three of us from my graduating class all applying for the same environmental research job with a national foundation. After making the rounds interviewing with the other staff, I ended up across the desk from the boss. His last question was a doozy: “Of the three of you applying for this job, what distinguishes you from the others?”


I was friends with both of them. We’d gone through school together. We partied together. We liked and respected each other. We were the top three in our class. The question was fair and tough--and a great test. He leaned forward to watch and listen to my response.

In a rare moment of humility informed by the reality of the situation, I told him I didn’t see significant differences between us. I told him he could pick any of us at random and get a solid employee.

I got the job. The boss, the late Herb Berger, was the best boss I have ever had. He was a kind and loving human being. He modeled selfless leadership. When I think of him, I become--temporarily at least—a better person.

When I recall my better interviews that were successful, I recall talking more about the other great people I worked with and less about me.

This is especially important in the sustainability world. Nothing we accomplish happens without the buy-in, partnerships, collaborations, leadership, and energy of many people. Indeed, that is the critical element of sustainability: inclusion. I am powerless to unilaterally effect any sustainability outcome that would be durable. Even if I could, without others’ ownership and support any achievements will be temporary.

I was once explaining sustainability to somebody who was just learning about it—and she taught me something. After I went through the above inclusion lecture she remarked, “OK, I get it: with sustainability the process is the product!” Indeed.

Bottom line: in your interview for sustainability-something at such-and-such college, talk about everybody who you have worked with and learned from--and how effective they were at helping get things done. Your employer wants to know you will build coalitions and teams and all those words. You can't do it alone.

Sustainability: it’s not about you.

Good luck!



  1. Dave, came across your blog via the Green Schools listserv. As a sustainability graduate student currently applying for jobs, I appreciate your advice. Even in my brief experience working with sustainability and higher ed., I completely agree with your thoughts here. Thanks for writing... keep it up!

  2. Dave, I'm just starting my first job in higher ed sustainability. Your words really resonate with me. I will let them be among the many guides I need as I help build our college's sustainability initiatives.

  3. Oh I get it... this is a ploy for us to reference YOU in our job interview(s) as one of the people we've "worked with and learned from!" Real sneaky Dave - that's some ego! :) (totally joking, or course)

    Actually, this may in fact be how I got my sustainability-something job at such and such campus...! Good work D, as always.

  4. Dave - well said, fun to read and very much like I have experienced in my life as a sustainability professional. With very little formal education in sustainability I have found its more about your passion and how effective you can be at facilitating change. You are right, it's not about you, it's about how you work with and lead others. Especially the ones who hold an opposing view (which at the moment is about half the population).

    Keep it up.

    JD in Colorado

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.