3 Ways My Sustainability Masters Degree (U of T) Prepared Me for The Business World

As I reflect back on my first year in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MScSM) Program at U of T, my memories gravitate to the incredible industry professionals that came to speak to me and my colleagues.


This summer, as part of my program’s work term placement, I will be an intern with the Corporate Sustainability Group at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). Below are 3 key lessons that I’ve learned on how to move seamlessly from the textbook to the real world – I’m anxious to test it out!

1) Don’t Lose Sight of the Business’ Goals

The concept of sustainability must be tightly connected to the business realities of the company in which you work. There’s no better way to alienate yourself from your co-workers than by coming into a new company with a lot of sustainability jargon that’s best discussed at an Al Gore fundraiser.

Stay focused on how to save your company money…

Stay focused on how to save your company money and how to build stronger relationships with a variety of stakeholders. Put forward realistic and tangible ideas and leave textbook definitions out of the discussion.

This message came from many our guest speakers but the way our very first guest speaker of the year, Steve Quon, Vice-President Corporate Development at Maxxam Analytics articulated the point seemed to resonate with me quite strongly.

Keep sustainability tangible with ideas that Maxxam can integrate into their everyday operations in order to help improve overall company success. For Maxxam, sustainability boils down to two simple words: Eliminate Waste. That is, natural resources, human resources, money and time. Steve’s message immediately became very clear to me – sustainability needs to be more than a simple concept or buzzword. A business case for why sustainability matters or should matter to a business is essential, otherwise it is nothing but an idealistic concept that floats around in the workplace. By eliminating waste Maxxam, a laboratory services business, has been able to move forward with a new sustainability focus, demonstrating that any business has the ability to be sustainable and profitable.

2) Find Your Supporters and Champions

When entering a new company you must quickly find allies both among your peers and with those who can help you reach higher up into the realm of management. Steve Quon (who clearly had an impact on me), emphasized how change is difficult for companies and that by establishing a consensus and finding sustainability champions you are much more likely to reach your goals.

Don’t get sidetracked and focus on those who are contrary to your ideas but rather, focus on those who are most likely to support you.

Another incredible guest who came to our class was Dr. Bob Willard. He emphasized the hard truth that as a sustainability leader in an organization you will likely be unable to please everyone. Don’t get sidetracked and focus on those who are contrary to your ideas but rather, focus on those who are most likely to support you.

These groups include the “die-hard” sustainability believers and those that “go with the flow”. By channeling these groups, two important things can be achieved.

  • sustainability champions can be born – with the die-hard believers likely to be the first movers.
  • a path may be carved towards top management – the influencers of the organization.

As one of my courses emphasized we must put ideas forward that are salient to those around us – that is to say, the ideas must resonate and meet the goals of colleagues. This will not only help in the search for sustainability champions but also in the search for organizational-wide consensus. And with consensus comes the foundation for more sustainability initiatives to come.

3) Integrative Thinking – Moving From “OR” to “AND”

Jeff Chan

Jeffrey Chan

From the beginning, I knew very well that pursuing a career in sustainability would be a great challenge. From my time as an intern with the McMaster University Office of Sustainability to working for Sustainable Hamilton, a non-profit social enterprise, every step seemed to involve a trade-off. Quite often, I was faced with a situation where I had to choose between my desired sustainability ideas or something else but I could not have both. Something had to be sacrificed.

As an up and coming sustainability professional and leader I will undoubtedly be faced with similar situations in the future. My goal will be to try and eliminate these trade-offs whenever possible.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned was the power and value of integrative thinking – the shift from an “or” mindset to an “and” mindset. The “and” mindset allows you to see the bigger picture, to craft ideas that transform trade-offs into creative and innovative solutions. Each of the industry professionals that came to speak to my class this past year adopted integrative approaches unique to their organizations’ values and objectives. I hope to bring a similar mindset to my summer internship at RBC and to my career as a whole. To me, this truly is the key to sustainability.

To learn more about the U of T Sustainability Management Program as either a student or an industry partner – click here.
Jeffrey Chan is a Graduate Student in the University of Toronto’s new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program.