Surviving Your First Year as Sustainability Manager

Congratulations! You have been hired as ABC University’s sustainability manager. Your job description includes developing new initiatives to save energy, water and resources, conducting education and outreach on environmental issues, and coordinating with other departments on sustainability programming. Very likely, you have no one reporting to you and no colleagues in the same department. Also very likely, you are the first person to hold this newly created position. There are hundreds of things you know you could do, but where should you start? In what order should you do things so that you set yourself up for success in the long run?

Having been in the position of new sustainability coordinator three times, I know first hand how confusing and overwhelming this situation can be. Because sustainability is often a new area, you have to prove what you do is valuable and that it’s worth keeping you around. This makes the first year all the more important (and stressful). In this article I share some of my insights on surviving the first year and also the hard won advice from sustainability in higher education professionals in the field.


You may have your ideas of what campus sustainability means, but what does it mean to the stakeholders of your institution–the president, administration, faculty, students, and most importantly your boss? Sustainability is not a one (wo)man job; relationships are crucial for getting things done. If you don’t take the time to learn what people care about, you may find yourself working on the wrong things or the right things in the wrong ways. Therefore the first six months on the job need to be devoted heavily to understanding priorities and developing relationships.

One of the first things to understand is which stage your institution is at in terms of sustainability. Is sustainability an emerging, pioneering, or institutionalizing area at your institution?  In the emerging stage, people are becoming conscious of the value of sustainability. A committee might be formed and conversations are had about values and priorities. In the pioneering stage, a full time sustainability coordinator is often hired and small pilot projects are undertaken. In the institutionalizing stage, sustainability initiatives become established programs and are integrated into the operation of the institution. Your strategy as sustainability officer is very different depending on which stage your institution is in; and different parts of the institution can be in different stages at the same time. For example, a university could have a well developed academic program, but pioneering operational sustainability and emerging civic engagement sustainability.

One of the best things you can do, possibly even before you accept the job, is to talk to the person who did it before. She or he will have a good understanding of what the challenges of the job are and who the key players are. If there was nobody who did your job before, there was likely a professor, student or staff member who took on most of the responsibilities. Connect with that person. By way of a cautionary tale, at one place I worked at the person who had my job before me hated his boss so much that it was the reason he quit, and this was after he had worked at the institution in another role for over 10 years. That should have been my sign to run away as fast as I can. Unfortunately I didn’t learn this until after I started and by then it was too late.

Read. Carefully review your institution’s climate action plan, STARS, sustainability website, master plan and any other documents related to your job. What is the overall tone of the documents? Is the institution’s priority primarily education, cost savings, or carbon reduction? Make a list of the strengths and weaknesses in terms of sustainability. What are the priorities that people have previously identified?

Manage expectations early on.  Establish regular meeting times with your boss and discuss your job description. What programs need immediate attention and ongoing maintenance? What projects can wait? What are your strengths and interests? What can you do easily and what will you need help with?  What problems are actionable? Is there energy from key players to tackle the problem? 

Get the lay of the land. Create an organization chart that maps people’s responsibilities and where they reside in the organization. Develop a strategy for reaching out to these people. Identify the champions as well as the “feet draggers.” Figure out who has official power and who has unofficial power. In every organization there is politics and history. Don’t be afraid to take people off campus for lunch and get them to tell you the real deal; it helps to have a few allies who are willing to be candid.

Build social capital. Building social capital means getting people’s goodwill and coming across as a trustworthy, competent, and likeable person. It means being seen as someone who cares about other people’s needs.  Be generous, friendly, and curious. Appreciate them for what they do on campus and especially how they advance sustainability. Let them know how much you value their support and collaboration. If you meet with someone who is indifferent to sustainability or even a climate denier, talk to them about their interests and listen to their concerns without being defensive. Aurora Winslade, Sustainability Director at Swarthmore College, says, “I make sure that people leave their meetings with me feeling good. If they associate me with negativity, criticism, or an increased work load, it will not help me. If they come away feeling good, they will want to collaborate with me.”

With every person you meet with, find out how they have implemented or not implemented sustainability. Let them take you on a tour of their part of the campus. Dano Weisbord, Sustainability Director at Smith College, recommends asking everyone these questions:

  1. What are you doing now in sustainability?
  2. What would you like to do if you had more resources? 
  3. What is keeping you from doing the things you would like to do?

Ask these questions with an open mind. Phrase questions in terms of what their needs are and how you can help them with their goals.

Be neutral: Don’t be perceived as the person with a one track agenda who makes demands on everybody. Jennifer deHart, Chief Sustainability Officer at Unity College, writes, “Model to others how inclusive approaches pave the way to success. See all people as people, regardless of how others may advise you to see them. At the same time – and this is not easy – establish yourself as a neutral party. When you have a question, ask at least two different people for the answer. Avoid being taken under the wing of potentially divisive individuals or groups; rather, receive advice without agreeing, and then make up your own mind.”

Be Visible. You need to show others that you are getting things done and raising awareness about sustainability. Jennifer deHart suggests, “In addition to meeting with people individually, find informal venues to meet others and demonstrate your personal and professional investment in the campus. Hang out at the faculty lounge. Invite yourself to eat lunch with students at random. Accept social invitations. Get out of your office.”  Don’t be shy of publicity and have the school newspaper, alumni magazine, blog, etc. interview you. At Smith College, Friday afternoon tea was a popular venue for students as well as employees to get together and unwind at the end of the week. Plan your own “sustainability tea” and welcome people to discuss issues with you outside of formal settings. Get involved with committees and programs on campus that aren’t directly related to sustainability. Caroline Savage at Indiana State University says, “During my first week on the job here, I volunteered to help with the College of Arts and Science’s diversity plan. This turned into me chairing the Diversity Planning Committee, which built a lot of credibility between me and some of the diversity stakeholders around campus. The relationships I built four years ago by stepping up to the plate on an issue that wasn’t ostensibly mine are still working for me today.”

Survey: To get an even broader picture, conducting an online sustainability survey is a great way to gather information from a lot of people. Questions can range from how seriously do you perceive climate change to be a problem, to ranking issues and initiatives in terms of importance. Along with the survey you can organize an event where people can discuss these issues in person. Aurora Winslade did just that when she planned a Sustainability Summit four months after she started at Swarthmore College. The summit included a catered lunch, a  welcome from the President, presentations from campus and community groups, and a charade where people brainstormed what they felt the school did well and what it could improve upon in terms of sustainability. With this event Aurora showed herself to be engaged, visible, neutral, and gathered information regarding the institution’s priorities.

Find peer support: Being the only sustainability manager at an institution can be isolating, but there are plenty of peers at other institutions and also within the institution in similar roles. Get to know the sustainability directors at institutions locally or similar to yours, and talk to them once a month. Get to know the sustainability champions in the local community. Go to the AASHE conference and other professional development events. You might also find valuable relationships with professionals on campus in a similar role, such as the diversity coordinator or director of civic engagement. Having someone as a neutral sounding board and peer support is invaluable in this field. 


With so much information to absorb, you’ll need an information management system to keep it all in organized. Jennifer Kleindienst, Sustainability Director at Wesleyan University, recommends keeping a list of ideas and projects that you can keep adding to. I use the app Workflowy to manage my list and also to take notes on meetings. I also use Evernote to clip webpages and take notes. A sophisticated task management app, such as Wunderlist or Things keeps to dos organized by projects and deadlines. then while you are gathering information, you can begin to create a work plan for the first year and also a long term plan for campus sustainability.

The first step in planning and executing is assembling the right team. Tonie Miyamoto of Colorado State University said that when she started the first thing she did was refresh the sustainability committee. She says, “First, we refreshed the charge and name of the campus sustainability committee. We changed the name from ‘Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Advisory Committee’ to the ‘President’s Sustainability Committee.’ A name can seem like a small thing but it really energized the committee to reinforce that we report directly to the President. Second, we asked the President for a new charge and created a succinct mission statement: ‘Promote and facilitate the effective integration of sustainability across all aspects of the University.’ This not only made our role more clear but moved us from ‘advising’ to ‘promoting and facilitating’ – much more empowering and action oriented.

We also updated the membership of the committee. It used to be all high-ranking administrators when it was solely an advisory committee and meetings were poorly attended and lacked excitement. With our new charge, we recruited staff members and students who were doing sustainability work in their regular jobs. Having those folks join VPs and managers at committee meetings has really improved our ability to move initiatives forward as we are hearing from both administrators who understand policy, mission, and budgets but also from the on-the-ground champions who are responsible for carrying out the work.”

Assembling the right team also means hiring help. Quality matters more than quantity here and for many this means a recent graduate or entry level professional with a related major. Interns who are current students are also very helpful, and the more you can invest in them the more committed they will be to the job. William Marshall Brown at Indiana University says when he started he immediately hired a graduate student leader who was a Bloomington native and knew everyone he needed to know. She helped him fill in the gaps where he was weak, and “she quickly became the co-creator of our program as full-time assistant director,” he says.

I thought it very wise that rather than undertaking a major sustainability strategic plan right off the bat, Tonie and the sustainability committee at Colorado State University held a retreat and set some shorter-term goals for the first year. These included more active membership in AASHE, collaborating on a STARS assessment, providing regular feedback on building plans to ensure that sustainability feedback was received early enough to impact the final project, and endorsing proposals that had already been submitted and new proposals to be presented to the committee. Tonie and her team were able to complete all their short term goals in the first year which greatly helped her get buy-in for new projects and led to the creation of an in depth Sustainability Strategic Plan in the second year.

If a Climate Action Plan is in place when you arrived, you need to evaluate and update it. Is the Climate Action Plan a wishlist of items or a strategy for implementation? Are there timelines, budgets, and commitment from responsible parties? Which items can be easily implemented and which ones can’t? Which are “must haves” and which are “nice to haves”? Caroline Savage, Program Director of the Institute for Community Sustainability at Indiana State University says, “When I arrived at ISU four years ago, a committee had just established a Climate Action Plan, but none of its steps were actionable. I didn’t want to stir the waters early on by undercutting the hard work that had been done, but in hindsight, I wish I had gone back into the plan and worked with its creators to refine it a bit. Asking uncomfortable questions towards making the plan stronger in the beginning could have allowed us to better sync metrics and track progress; we found ways around this and are launching a better process for a new sustainability plan this coming year, but I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort if I had done this in my first month here.”

Some institutions have a Climate Action Plan but no STARS. Doing a STARS early on helps you figure out what is done well and what could be done better. The Climate Action Plan can be updated accordingly. Doing STARS is also a good way to get to know all the players on your campus and start building the relationships that you need.

Some of the actions in your plan will be determined by the academic calendar of your institution. Typically you need to plan at least 6 months ahead for programs. If you start in September, you will need to begin planning for Earth Day events in October/November, move-out efforts in November/December, and opening events in February/March. William Brown says, “Align your plan with the vision, mission, and strategic plans of your administration. Learn to speak their language and demonstrate how your programs reinforce what they are trying to accomplish. At the same time become involved in the process for other plans such as Campus Master Plans, Strategic Visioning plans, etc.”


Everyone I spoke to said getting wins early in one’s tenure is extremely important for building credibility and momentum, two key things that you need to get your sustainability program off the ground. Early wins can be “low hanging fruit,” but they need to be visible and build social capital.

Creating communication channels for sustainability is an easy win that greatly increases visibility. One of the first things that I did as sustainability manager at Towson University was to create a sustainability Facebook page, Twitter, blog, and weekly newsletter. Sustainability updates started to arrive regularly in people’s inboxes across the campus, and people were able to submit announcements to be included in those as well. Regular communication makes it look like a lot is happening. I also updated the sustainability website and made sure that the updated Climate Action Plan and STARS report were linked prominently on the front page. I worked with the sustainability advisory committee to get approval to have the webpage moved from “Student Life” to “About” in the main menu of the institutional homepage.

Jennifer Kleindienst at Wesleyan University recommends bringing to fruition projects that have been started by others. Not only are those projects easier to accomplish because others are working on it, you also get social capital by helping them. One of the first projects she did was channel funds from the Center for Social Entrepreneurship for a student contest for campus sustainability. The money was awarded to a project to install portable outdoor water bottle fillers. The bottle fillers were really visible, got publicity for sustainability, and generated goodwill from the students, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and administrators. In my first year at Swarthmore College, the Green Advisors were a student group who led behavior change programs in the residence halls but faced challenges due to lack of funding and oversight. I helped them advocate for funding and got the leaders of the group to report to the Director of Facilities. These changes were already being advocated by the students and helping them really boosted my standing with students well as with administrators.

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where it’s very difficult to get projects funded and implemented. Ryan Kmetz said that he focused on getting grants for sustainability in his first year. He also turned himself into an advocate by making the business case for sustainability to administrators so that he could get internal funding. Also, educational initiatives tend to be low cost, highly visible, and often easier to implement, especially if you have a facilities department that is less than cooperative. Initiatives like an environmental film series, Earth Day Fair, or inviting speakers to campus leverage funds from academic departments and student affairs and helps to make sustainability visible on campus.

Aurora Winslade recommends focusing on two priorities in the first year. “It’s ok to feel overwhelmed,” she says, “at the same time you need to focus because you can’t do everything at once.” For her, the two most important priorities at the start were energy and waste. “I cannot manage every sustainability project on campus,” she says, “what’s important is that I take action where I have the greatest leverage.” For example, she hired a consultant to undertake a waste audit of the campus, knowing that this would be a complex and time consuming task. She also hired a recent graduate to manage the newly established internal carbon charge. “I’m able to do these things because I report to the President and can hire help,” she says, “but even if you are in a pioneering stage and have no help, you can leverage your position in low cost ways through collaboration with student groups, faculty, and other staff members. If you try to do everything yourself you’ll burn out or forget something, so get others involved as much as possible.” And when something is accomplished, give public credit to others. But, she adds, make sure that your boss knows about the part that you played in making it happen.

Professional Development and Self Care

Cultivating your professional development ensures that you are continually improving and adding value. Keeping a work journal is a great way to reflect on successes and mistakes. A mentor of mine once recommended taking 15 minutes every day to read industry related material. Over time you learn a lot and stay updated with a rapidly evolving field. Join professional associations like AASHE and go to conferences. Regional conferences are great ways to meet people locally. Writing articles is a great way to build your reputation. Attend webinars and get a certificate like LEED or the sustainability management course at Harvard.

In my interview with Aurora Winslade, she said that the one skill she thinks everyone in this position needs to develop is how to conduct good meetings. Some people are naturally good at leading meetings but it is a skill that can be learned like anything else. Good meetings are fun and productive. People leave them feeling energized and equipped to act. They have the right people and only happen when they need to happen. Developing this skill will go a long way in making you a more effective professional.

Managing sustainability is a complex job that requires one to perform at one’s best, especially in the first year. Being well rested and well nourished is important to maintain one’s health and emotional balance. Do things that inspire you. For some people, it might be reading literature on the environment. For others it might be gardening or spending time in nature. Continue to work on your hobbies and personal goals outside of work. Being a well rounded person with a personal life will make you happier and more effective.

Managing sustainability can be the most challenging and rewarding job. Whereas many jobs are cogs in a wheel, sustainability often gives us the privilege of strategizing and designing projects that we care about. With a successful first year, you’ll be well on your way to managing a program to have lasting impact at your institution.

As a bonus, here is a list of inspiring reading recommended for sustainability professionals by sustainability professionals:

Books on Change Management

The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins
Leading Change,
by John Kotter
Buy In, by John Kotter
The Sustainability Champions Guidebook, by Bob Willard
The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, by Mitchell Thomashow and Anthony Cortese
Occupy Education: Living and Learning Sustainability, by Tina Lynn Evans
Sustainability in Higher Education: Stories and Strategies for Transformation, by Peggy F. Barlett and Geoffrey W. Chase
Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World, by Sara Parkin
Business Lessons From a Radical Industrialist, by Ray Anderson
Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley
Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Community Based Social Marketing, by Doug McKenzie – Mohr
Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics, by Stephen Wendel

Literature about the Environment

Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, by David Orr
Full Catastrophe Living. Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn & Thich Nhat Hanh
Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken
Parachuting Cats Into Borneo, by Alan AtKisson and Axel Klimek.
Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein
Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, by Daniel Goleman
Prodigal Summer & Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Wild God of the World, by Robinson Jeffers
House of Light, by Mary Oliver
American Primitive, by Mary Oliver
Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck
The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Leguin
Dune, by Frank Herbert
What Are people For?, by Wendell Berry
Conversations with the Archdruid, by John McPhee
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiwicz
In Search of the Good Life, by Rebecca Todd Peters


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