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.”
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