“Don’t worry about job security…. You’re self-employed.”

1999 was a long time ago — at least two tsunamis, two recessions, several wars and multiple terrorism events ago.  Pundits hadn’t yet declared the world flat, and the biggest technology challenge we faced was the doomsday forecast for Y2K.  1999 was so far back that Apple only made computers then.

In April of that year, ERM held its first Business Integration Forum, kicking off a decade-long series of client events on three continents.  To wrap up that first Forum, James Kelly (a respected expert in management and then an ERM Board member) led a discussion on organizational and personal transformation.  Looking forward, he presciently told the 28 corporate environmental Directors and VPs:

“The business models that emerge will be…more connected but less rigid.  We will be more free to define our own jobs and make our own connections.  We will also be required to make our own connections.  Within our corporations, we will move from a concept of employment to one of self-employment – both in internal and external marketplaces.”

That’s not the future any more; that’s reality.  Hundreds of corporate EHS (environment, health and safety) leaders participated in our Forums in the decade after 1999. I’ve gone back recently to look at what’s happened to some of them since.  Some have retired, of course.  Some have remained in the same positions. Some have flourished, and are leading EHS or Sustainability programs in bigger or more dynamic companies, or are Senior Vice Presidents in the same company.  Others – respected colleagues and good friends –are on the job market.

What differentiates those who flourished from those who struggled?  On the surface, that is hard to answer. These people were all smart and hard-working; that doesn’t separate them.  Certainly some were luckier than others; good people had bad things happen to their companies through no fault of their own.  So I looked for different factors that might explain the different outcomes.

The biggest differentiator, I found, is who seized the initiative, defined their own jobs and made their own connections.  By and large, the EHS leaders who have flourished are those took on more challenges, who built new networks both inside and outside their companies, and who pushed themselves to tackle issues well outside their technical comfort zone.  For some, that meant creating their own luck, leaving seemingly comfortable jobs rather than waiting for events to dictate their career.

EHS leaders now are facing a period when defining their jobs may be mandatory, not optional.  As I wrote in an article just posted on the EHS Journal, the EHS VP may be an endangered species in the US.  The survivors are likely to be those EHS leaders who shape and embrace the emerging hybrid models that combine EHS skills with other pressing business opportunities or risks.

I don’t pretend this is easy.  In 2009 I “fired” myself from ERM’s global leadership team to carve out a role as a full-time ERM consultant.  I made a conscious decision to stay with ERM but in a different role. There was no clear precedent or path for returning to full-time consulting after giving up my clients, projects, teams and sales pipeline.  I had to define my job and build new connections. Taking my own medicine wasn’t fun.  Even with strong management support, it was hard and scary.  (Along the way, I learned some useful lessons that I’ll share in a future blog.)

As I felt all too clearly, the risks of making changes with our jobs and careers are daunting.  “The reality, though, is that the risks of not changing are probably greater,” as James Kelly said back in 1999. “Don’t worry about job security.  There is no job security.  You’re self-employed.”

Opinions on this site are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of ERM, its partners or clients.


  1. Scott, you wrote “EHS leaders now are facing a period when defining their jobs may be mandatory, not optional. …The survivors are likely to be those EHS leaders who shape and embrace the emerging hybrid models that combine EHS skills with other pressing business opportunities or risks”. I think you touch on a broader phenomenon here, the world is changing so fast that professionals in any field need to keep defining their jobs. Embrace the change, EHS professionals!

  2. Good reflections, especially now as we all consider how to evolve both our roles and our enterprises to advance sustainability objectives. James Kelly’s line that the risks of not changing are probably greater reminds me of when I left a major international environmental consulting company in 1991 (with wife, a 2 year old and one in the oven) to start my own consultancy. I posted a few quotes in my spartan new offices to steel myself and staunch my doubts. They were very helpful then and still resonate with me.

    “There is no security on this earth, there is only opportunity.”
    General Douglas MacArthur

    And my fave:
    “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
    Helen Keller

  3. Scott,
    This is a really well-written and insightful piece. In some ways, you articulate something I have thought about for a few years now and others keep saying, which is that the way we thought of work (one job, one company, single paycheck) is changing forever. I, for one, applauded the national healthcare act. Politics aside, what I thought that did was remove one of the elements of risk for people in leaving their old jobs to allow them to essentially freelance where ever there was opportunity. I see in 20 years very, very few actual full-time jobs with benefits being offered by any company. Instead, I see tasks being farmed out to the most talented and most able to add value. So an enterprising person could fill their own sales pipeline with 6 months worth of projects at 2 or 3 companies, turn in the deliverable and move on. No worries about benefits or anything because you have the ability to buy your own benefits from a central pool to fit your needs.

    Rewind to today and that is essentially what you are setting up in this post. Traditional jobs are changing – in a way, setting up for the new model I described above – because successful employees are ones who look ahead to where the opportunities to add value are – and jump into the fray by making these new connections and opportunities for themselves. In short, I agree 100% with your post, and would add to it that this new model will continue to shape and evolve in the future until there are very few actual jobs offered. In fact, most of the firms hiring right now are consulting firms. Look at ERM’s own growth, or the Big 4 firms. They are adding, in some cases, dozens of employees a week. My company has not hired a single mid-level professional in 18 months. Not one. Yet our expenditures on consultants (big and small) have grown considerably.

    Looking forward to seeing more of your writing.
    Rich Goode

  4. In the what, almost 30 years I’ve known you, your insight continues to be insightful and on target. We’re certainly experiencing a paradigm shift in the employment world, and any perception of job security is quickly vanishing. Gone are the days when one could land in a long term corporate career and excel simply by impressing your management and making them look good in the eyes of their management.

    Back in our shared time at Conrail, the idea that one needed to be an entrepreneur within the corporate world was pretty well unheard of and for the most part, the term “consultant” was not complimentary! The split up of Conrail, especially the sudden nature of it, shattered any illusions I had of long term corporate careers or job security. It was in those early days of the split up that I learned the value of entrepreneurial skills within the corporate world, as I managed to reinvent almost my entire department and sell it as an internal service bureau in support of the mergers and split ups taking place. Echoing your own words, I suppose it was then and there that I realized that the key to success wasn’t for me to be G&A or line or commercial, rather it was for me to look at myself (and my department) as product and figure out how best to market that product.

    I’ll also never forget, as early as the beginning of the 90s, you were preaching the value of personal networks. Of course, back then, I didn’t fully realize that building the network was only a small portion of the task, and learning to use the network was really the more important survival skill.

    Keep writing Scott, and I’ll keep listening. Your thoughts haven’t failed me yet…

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