According to a recent jobs report by the World Economic Forum, the future of the workforce will require interpersonal and leadership skills (e.g., empathy, collaboration), and this is as true for global sustainability professionals as it is for other careers. The report emphasizes that “‘Human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving. Emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence, as well as service orientation, also see an outsized increase in demand relative to their current prominence.”

These “soft skills” will help any professional and especially sustainability professionals to be successful in their careers, now and in the future. Students in the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability Executive Master of Natural Resources program hone their soft skills in a variety of ways—building and maintaining effective teams; resolving conflicts to mutual benefit; learning techniques for cross-sector negotiations; applying social theory insights to sustainability challenges, and more.

Harvard Business Review article titled “7 Skills That Aren’t About to Be Automated,” describes seven “soft skills” employees should have to be competitive in the future. While the article is about skills that cannot be automated in the foreseeable future, these are very relevant skills to sustainability professionals. We review each of these soft skills below, as it applies to our field:

1) Communication, particularly storytelling and persuasive communication Communication is the bedrock skill for sustainability professionals. You will need to communicate with a wide variety of stakeholders, some who understand sustainability and some who don’t. Sustainability professionals must be able to persuade others of the importance of sustainability or of taking certain action or changing behavior. While not mentioned in the HBR article, this EHS careers article mentions the importance of public speaking and persuasion. Public speaking is another skill sustainability professionals could use to persuade. 

2) Content or expertise about a given topic and communicating your understanding of the topic  Although not a soft skill, sustainability professionals should have at least one area of expertise, whether that’s “sustainability” itself or a specific aspect of sustainability such as circular economy, life-cycle analysis, reporting, or some other area expertise.

3) Context and the ability to modify your presentation based on your audience  It almost goes without saying that this is critically important to sustainability job seekers. Employers will want to know that you have the context necessary to effectively present your position throughout the enterprise and outside it as well.

4) Emotional competence  Understanding the emotions of your colleagues and stakeholders about a given situation can be useful when presenting your case for forward movement. Storytelling is very important in evoking emotions to lead to your preferred action.

5) Teaching  Understanding the skills and knowledge gaps of people in your organization and how those individuals relate to the needs of the organization will give you, as manager, the ability to focus teaching on those gaps. As a sustainability professional, you will be teaching throughout your organization and across organizations about what sustainability is, why it’s important and how to move in the direction of sustainable development.

6) Networks  Being able to access a vast network of people is important when moving into a new position or seeking new employment. Most jobs come from your extended network rather than from job postings. We discuss approaches to networking during career coaching sessions, available to all our students.  

7) Strong moral values  While the article explains that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots are incapable of moral judgment, having strong moral values and ethics is essential for us as humans. For the sustainability professional, it is important because there will be many times in your career when you must make a judgment and having those values to fall back on will help you make the call. As a job seeker, being able to articulate those values will help you show a future employer your trustworthiness, integrity, and professionalism.


Another set of soft skills that we contend is important for sustainability leaders now and in the future, and ones that will further protect them from automation involves cross-cultural competencies and a global mindset. Sustainability professionals must understand the challenges and opportunities of multinational corporations as well as develop that part of one’s leadership repertoire related to diversity and cultural appreciation. That’s why all our students have an opportunity to collaborate with sustainability organizations around the world during the Global Study program modules.

To summarize, employers seek well-rounded, generalists as well as specialists. Employees should have strong interpersonal and leadership skills. Whether you are on the hiring or job-seeking side of this equation, it’s crucial to understanding the significance of these soft and—very human—skills for the future of work.


Jennifer Wills headshot

For more than 15 years, Jennifer Wills has been advising and problem-solving with clients to reach their goals. She’s been an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a Brookings Fellow on Capitol Hill. She teaches International Environmental Law and Policy in the Online MNR program and is a 2017 graduate of the XMNR program. Wanting to have an even greater impact in the field of sustainability and helping others succeed, Jennifer started her coaching business for environmental and sustainability professionals.