Good works: Building your career on positive impact

The groundswell of focus on positive societal impact continues to gain momentum, with people around the world increasingly demanding that companies drive positive change.

For those of us working in the social impact space, it is inspiring to see mounting interest in tackling the world's pressing challenges. The groundswell of focus on positive societal impact continues to gain momentum, with people around the world increasingly demanding that companies drive positive change.

Research by my firm, Cone Communications, shows just how universal these expectations have become: The “2011 Cone/Echo Global CR Opportunity Study” found an overwhelming 94% of consumers say companies must evolve their business practices to make positive impact. Just a tiny minority — only 6% — believe companies exist only to make money.

More and more, these high expectations that consumers have about brands are migrating to the workplace, with people making values-based decisions not just about the products they buy, but where they work. In fact, nearly 70% of Americans say a company's commitment to social or environmental issues is of key importance in selecting a future employer.

In my role at Cone, working with organizations across the public, private, nonprofit, and social enterprise realms, I increasingly find myself approached by individuals seeking advice about how to bring meaning and purpose to their careers. Whether at conferences or universities here in the US or abroad, or via LinkedIn and email, I encounter a similar refrain: How do I break into the CSR field? What skill sets are most valuable and important? How can I convert my interest and passion for doing good into a viable career path?

These are important questions with often complex and nuanced answers: There are so many potential approaches to amassing experiences across different sectors, such variety within the broad field of CSR and so much evolution underway in the social impact space that it can be genuinely challenging to figure out a path.

That's why I press career changers and career seekers alike to go about their quest in a focused and deliberate way. This means getting individuals to apply to their personal path the same structured approaches I use with organizations, large and small, to help them develop and communicate their commitments to positive societal impact. Here are six time-tested principles:

Define your purpose: First, identify what motivates you: Ask yourself: “Why?” Making the world a better place is a high-minded but diffuse goal. Dig deeper to uncover your purpose. Be clear about what you what you want to achieve. Complete the phrase: “I exist to....” Crack this down to a short, concise statement. Aim for the crystalline clarity of a company like Disney (“To make people happy”) or Merck (“Preserve and improve human life”). Done right, a clearly defined purpose becomes a beacon by which to navigate and to evaluate career choices.

Map your assets: For companies seeking to take on social issues, understanding fully the resources that they have at their disposal is a critical early step. This should be just as important for you as an individual. Make a list of your skill blocks, capabilities, and innate talents. Especially if you are switching sectors, drill down to your transferable skills from current and past roles and identify how they can be used in new and different contexts.

Start small, work to big: Many companies starting out on CSR journeys begin with simple interventions, like increasing efficiency or reducing waste, before advancing to deeper commitments. You too can start small. There are so many CSR-focused conferences, newsletters, and social platforms where you can learn and network, and it's easy to make connections among a still relatively small community of practitioners. Look for ways to instill values and purpose across the multiple realms in which you operate, such as home, work, community, etc. Start with simple things like driving recycling or organizing volunteer efforts. Be proactive in communicating to management your passions and interests. Increasingly, at organizations big and small, there are opportunities for employees to influence and shape the social impact agenda. See if there are CSR-focused committees or teams that you could join to give you exposure and experience; if not, create one. Seek ways to demonstrate to potential employers that societal impact is an integral part of who you are.

Stick with it: With so much emphasis in the CSR arena on partnerships, and such blurring of the lines between social and economic impact, a diversity of roles including multi-sector experience can be a strong career asset. As you move around, though, make sure you stay long enough to build a solid base of professional experience. Applying the 10,000-hour rule, often cited as what's required to become an expert at just about anything, translates to three to four years to get you into the expert zone in a job, assuming 50- to 60-hour workweeks. Not scientific at all, but worth considering if you're thinking of changing jobs after just a year or two.

Tell your story: Successful brands and companies invest significant time and resources in making their story relevant and known. Build your own personal brand, integrating your purpose, personal assets and experience , and positive societal impact. Develop a crisp elevator speech that answers the fundamental questions any product or service must answer: Who am I? What am I? What can I do for you?  Especially for sector switchers, having this clearly defined message about yourself will be invaluable in helping others connect the dots on the arc of your career.

Don't delay: Whatever you do, get going! The mistake many make is pushing off to a future, ever-receding moment when they find that “perfect job,” what they can begin to do today.

If you do migrate across sectors, look to acquire critical career building blocks: Nonprofits can be a robust training ground for acquiring deep issue expertise, partnership development, fundraising, and communications skills, not to mention learning how to operate effectively amid extreme resource-constraints. The strategic focus, operating discipline, and ROI imperative of the business world will be of value wherever your career takes you. Social enterprise, an evolving space at the nexus of economic and social value, will challenge you to be agile, entrepreneurial, and innovative. Government roles present an opportunity to navigate complex political challenges, learn the ins and outs of public policy, and experience the deep rewards that come from devoting yourself to service.

Looking ahead, one thing is clear: In an increasingly populated and resource-constrained world, there will be plenty of social impact work to go around. The world will need entrepreneurial, synthetic, strategic thinkers, able to solve problems from different angles and who can draw on tools and skills from a broad range of disciplines and sectors to drive business and social innovation. The key task for individuals, whether students just setting out or established professionals looking to evolve their careers, is to figure out which of these challenges they want to solve and to start working towards that in a focused way. Now.

Craig Bida is EVP of cause and nonprofit marketing at Cone Communications. Follow him on Twitter @craigbida.

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