Expert: Hire for Sustainability

By Pamela Babcock Mar 14, 2008

​NEW YORK—The ability to meet present needs without compromising future generations, also known as sustainability, is a hot topic for today's business leaders. Yet most companies don't really take this need into account when recruiting MBA candidates, an expert says.

"Many companies have called it important, but most have not been committed to it," Andrew J. Horning, managing director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, told attendees here Feb. 26, 2008, at a Leadership Conference on Global Corporate Citizenship sponsored by The Conference Board. Instead, he said, sustainability has generally been "pigeonholed as a cost center."

As sustainability becomes more integral to corporate strategy and operations, MBA hiring needs to evolve to accommodate specialists, Horning said.

"There are more and more MBA and dual-degree students who have an interest in this area and are developing knowledge and skills in the area of sustainability," Horning explained. "This is not a matter of getting either a solid MBA or a strong sustainability person. It's about getting a top MBA who also understands sustainability in great depth."

The Erb Institute is a joint venture between the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan. In addition to a​ dual MBA/Master of Science and Ph.D. program, it offers research and opportunities for business leaders to grow their skills through executive education. Founded in 1996, enrollment has grown from 17 students in 1998 to 74 today.

"When I went through the program, most people thought we were crazy—we were tree huggers in one school and capitalist pigs in the other," said Horning, a 2000 graduate. "But now, it's really become more integrated and we've seen this tremendous jump in enrollment."

Evaluating Top Programs

Ask people "in the know" in corporate America about top business schools that do the best job of integrating sustainability content, and Horning said the list would include not only Michigan but also Yale University, Cornell University, New York University, Columbia University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University.

To analyze standout programs, Horning recommended, read the Aspen Institute's "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" and the 2007 issue of Net Impact's "Business as UNusual."

"Beyond Grey Pinstripes" is a biennial survey and alternative ranking of business schools whose mission is to spotlight innovative MBA programs that integrate social and environmental stewardship into curricula and research. "Business as UNusual" is a student guide to graduate business programs and reports what alumni say about how their programs address social and environmental issues.

What Future Business Leaders Think

According to a recent Net Impact survey, only about 42 percent of students said MBA programs prepare them adequately when it comes to the environment and society, while 70 percent said MBA programs should do a better job of preparing students in this area.

Nearly 80 percent said that sustainability should be a core part of MBA curriculum.

The same study found that 20 percent of MBA students said business currently works to improve society, while just over 80 percent said business should work to better society. Moreover, 90 percent said business should factor the environment and society into decisions, and 60 percent said sustainability and corporate social responsibility lead to financial profits.

The View of the Recruiter

According to a 2006 Wall Street Journal survey, corporate recruiters value a commitment to corporate social responsibility last out of 13 characteristics, with the top three being communication, teamwork and integrity. That's wrong, Horning said.

The MBA recruiting system is designed to hire a multitude of generalists and that hiring is often done by recent MBA grads "who are products of the system," Horning explained

"XYZ corporation might say, 'We have to hire 20 new MBAs a year for a general management rotation, and, in order to do that, we have to hire 50 interns each year from the top business schools,' " Horning continued. Doing so might maximize the efficiency process—but also get you the wrong people when it comes to your corporate sustainability mission.

What Students Learn

There are many skills and attributes that the Erb Institute hopes students gain while in school. They include management fundamentals and an entrepreneurial mind-set—core parts of any good business school education—and scientific literacy and becoming a content expert, just what you'd get in Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment.

Other attributes that Horning said are more cogent "to the way that Erb works" include being a systems thinker and having a global perspective. "Being able to talk to scientists, business leaders and policy-makers is very important," Horning added.

Horning decided to get his MBA after working for several years as a wealth manager with Merrill Lynch. After graduation, he worked as market development manager for DTE Energy, where he focused on the commercialization of clean and renewable energy technologies, such as fuel cells, photovoltaics and wind power.

A sampling of other Erb Institute alumni includes Kevin Greiner ('98), president and CEO of Gas South LLC in Georgia; Rob Frederick ('00), assistant vice president of corporate sustainability for Brown-Forman Corp.; and Monique Oxender ('04), global manager of supply chain sustainability for Ford Motor Co.

Oxender, a former secondary school teacher, is on loan to the Automotive Industry Action Group and leading an effort to address working conditions in the global automotive supply chain.

Ruth Scotti ('05) is U.S. fuels policy advisor for BP America Inc. Future Fuels, working on advocacy for BP's new Biofuels business.

"If you could do one thing at your company to find the best people out there, encourage your HR folks to integrate specialty hires into the hiring process for MBA students," Horning said. "If you do, you'll attract talent who can hit the ground running to drive sustainability success throughout your organization."

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect