You’re probably well aware of the importance of professional networking. Research shows that employee referrals are four times as likely to be hired for a job, and up to 85 percent of jobs are filled through professional networking. When you’re searching for a new doctor or even a new book to read, you’re more likely to go with a personal referral—the option your trustworthy friend recommends. The same often holds true in the workplace. But how to make that personal connection isn’t always obvious says Anya Deepak of the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the Women’s Environmental Network. “We need to stop thinking of networking as a chore that needs to be done. It’s so transactional. If we keep it that way, you’re only going to get transactions out of it. How do you transform your networking persona to something you like?”
Whether you’re looking for your first job as a climate activist or you’re an experienced professional ready to transition into the climate space, professional networking can play a big role in your next career step.
Find Your Starting Point
When searching for a new position, everyone starts at a different point. Someone fresh out of college needs a different approach from a mid-career professional interested in transitioning to the green space.
Ariel Kaluzhny, software engineer at EnergySage, emphasizes the importance of knowing your starting point. “The climate space is so large. Before EnergySage, I was doing economic consulting in the [conventional] energy sector. From there, my first decision was that I wanted to transition to software engineering, and then the second decision was I want to transition to the green energy space,” Kaluzhny said. “The next major thing was knowing I really wanted to work for a small company. That really shaped the way I began looking and networking for jobs.”
You can start by taking inventory of your experience, goals and values by asking yourself a few questions:
- What exactly am I looking for in my next position? For example, consider criteria such as desk work versus fieldwork, or a client-facing position versus minimal client interaction.
- What are my core values, and what specific goals align with these values? Perhaps some of your core values are human rights and equity. As a result, it might be a goal of yours to work on a project that brings green transportation to an underserved community, so you’ll want to seek companies that work on projects like this.
- What relevant experience do I have? Although you may not have experience in the climate field, your educational background or prior experiences in team settings can overlap with a new position. Experience in software engineering or project management, for instance, may help you shape your job search.
- Do I want to work with a large or small company in the climate space? A small company may provide a more tight-knit atmosphere, while a large company might present more varied career paths.
- What job boards and social groups would my ideal climate employer utilize? Because Kaluzhny knew she wanted to work with a small company, she subscribed to AngelList, a job site specifically for startups.
Professional Networking with Informational Interviews
An informational interview is a meeting with a professional who currently works in your field of interest. It’s not a job interview but rather a chance to absorb information from someone whose career path you might follow.
Asking for an informational interview sounds easy in theory, but there’s one little question. How do you find people to contact when you’re jumping into an unfamiliar industry?
Where to find new connections
One effective way to find new contacts in the climate space is to join sustainability job networking organizations. A few examples include:
- Women’s Environmental Network
- International Society of Sustainability Professionals
- Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy
- Young Sustainability Network (for early-career individuals)
- Sustainable Career Pathways (this features a number of groups, many of which apply to both entry-level and senior-level professionals)
If there are networking events in your area, focus not just on showing up but on actually enjoying yourself. Of WEN’s career networking events, Deepak said, “I put together networking events, so I know how painful they can be. We keep our events very structured and fun with team games. At the end of the day, you take home three business cards and share them with the people in your team. Then, you check in on your networking goals regarding those three business cards. Those are ways we make networking more accountable and more fun.”
Perfect your cold outreach
What do you say to a stranger, let alone a stranger with impressive experience in the field you want to join? Following a few best practices can give your cold outreach the best chance at success, whether you’re reaching out virtually via email or LinkedIn message, or striking up a conversation at an in-person professional networking event.
First, be personal. Statistics for 20 million cold emails revealed that adding advanced personalization (e.g., congratulating the recipient on a recent promotion) more than doubled the email response rate. If you heard the person speak at a webinar, now’s a great time to mention that.
Next, be specific with your request. Instead of saying, “I’d love to know about your career progression in the solar energy industry,” try, “I’d love to meet for 15-20 minutes over Zoom or coffee to ask some informational interview questions about how you got started at Company X.”
Deepak said, “Networking is not about asking for favors. It’s about cultivating relationships so that when you do need to ask for favors, you don’t feel like a fraud.”
Finally, follow up. You might not get a response because someone missed or forgot about your message, not because of lack of interest. Use your best judgment, but a good rule of thumb is to follow up two or three times before moving on.
Real informational interview requests that work
“The best way to approach someone, especially someone who feels way out of your league, is to say something genuinely complimentary and find a source of connection,” Deepak said. “Something like, ‘Your career trajectory on LinkedIn looks so exciting. I, too, volunteered at the Exploratorium when I graduated college.’ Just find commonality and explore that.”
Below are some field-tested examples of cold messages that earned an informational interview, and lessons you might draw from them.
- Make a local connection. One successful email included this: “I just graduated from [Name of Higher Ed Institution] with a graduate degree in sustainable landscape design and planning, and moved to Philadelphia. I’m trying to plug into all things green here in Philly and am also looking for work. I would greatly appreciate chatting with you.”
- Mention a specific challenge. Another real (and successful) example: “I’m sure you’re very busy, but I’d appreciate an opportunity to get your insight into what possible career paths exist in the green space, if you’re open to that. For example, how might I be able to contribute to companies designing novel, non-toxic materials (like mycelium-based materials) without going back to school to get a degree in biology or chemistry?”
- Use a considerate sign-off: Professionals are often busy, so saying, “Thanks for considering meeting with me!” or “Are you available sometime in the next few weeks?” is less pushy than, “Can I pencil you in for Thursday?”
Best Informational Interview Questions
While your questions will depend on your own situation, here are some ideas to jumpstart your list:
- How did you begin your career?
- What do you like least/most about your day-to-day work?
- What skills separate a good from a great fit in your type of work (or another position that interests you)?
- What (lesser-known) current climate issues and trends should I know about?
- What are your favorite resources (e.g., publications, associations) for staying up to date with these issues?
- In your experience, what are some common career paths for this field?
- What are your top tips for preparing to enter this field?
- How does your advice change for a candidate transitioning from another field?
- If you could rewrite your career path, would you? What exactly would you change?
Remember that this is a two-way conversation. So while it’s great to have questions to guide the conversation, especially if you’re nervous talking to new people, it’s also helpful to ask follow-ups. Be ready to explore other conversational avenues rather than hewing too closely to your questions, lest you sound like you are literally reading off a list.
When the interview comes to an end, confirm the best way to follow up and consider asking for the name of another colleague to reach out to.
Position Yourself to Change Careers Successfully
Especially if you have years of experience in a non-green industry, you’ll want to take time to demonstrate your values and passions to future employers. “Every skill is transferable,” Deepak said. “I made a huge mistake when I came into the environmental sector thinking it was a whole new thing. Coming from education, I didn’t think I was a good fit, so I started as a volunteer. If someone had just told me that all of my skills from my 11-year career were transferrable, I would have felt confident applying for a higher-level job.”
Make a list of ways your current experience can translate into your desired new field. Even if your experience isn’t obviously related, your professional skills can definitely still be valuable. “Maybe your experience shows attention to detail, stakeholder engagement, meeting facilitation. Put that in there!” said Deepak. “For example, [instead of a receptionist saying], ‘I pick up the phone and talk to people’ [they] should focus on the way they de-escalated situations, dissected the chain of command and worked with senior managers.”
About 65 percent of employers prefer to see relevant experience, so if you don’t have immediate experience with the field you’re trying to break into, it could be beneficial to supplement your professional experience with hands-on projects. Think about whether you can seek out relevant projects at your current employer that would position you for your next job. Perhaps your current employer has a climate action group that engages in community projects or allows you to propose alternative solutions for energy usage. Otherwise, you can find projects through organizations like Engineers Without Borders, The Green Program (for students and recent grads) and the Terra.do platform.
“Don’t sell yourself short just because you don’t have an environmental background,” said Deepak. “At the end of the day, this is still an organization, and they still need a lot of things that other sectors need, you just may need to sell it a little differently.”
Develop a mentorship
A 2019 study of 3,000 professionals across 21 industries revealed 57 percent of entry-level professionals and 35 percent of mid-level professionals benefit from having a mentor. In 61 percent of cases, participants said that their mentor-mentee relationship developed naturally.
Keep a mental file of potential mentors, or take it a step further and save a document with names, background and contact information of people you’d like to develop this relationship with. To make it a mutually beneficial relationship, think of ways you can help your future mentor. For example, you can provide first-hand insights into what candidates look for in a sustainability job or participate in an event they’re involved with.
Remember to look for mentors in spaces that you are already engaged in that aligns with your own personal interest and career goals. If you are interested in learning more about climate change, look into mentor networks like Terra.do’s; if your focus is on local connection, search for programs like Depak’s WENtorship initiative.
Stay up to date
Ask your mentor and industry contacts about resources for staying informed on climate trends. Consider climate education courses through Terra.do and follow accounts on social media that keep you in the sustainability loop, such as How to Save a Planet, Intersectional Environmentalist and UN Climate Change. Follow Terra.do on LinkedIn and Twitter (@terradotdo), and subscribe to The Climate Switch newsletter.
“A past intern of mine keeps in touch every six months, like clockwork,” Deepak said. “She always sends brief updates on her life, and when she graduates, I’m going to remember her and let her know if a fitting job opportunity pops up. I’ve told this to every single person I’ve done informational interviews with, and not a single person has done it. That should tell you how rare it is, and it also tells you that these biannual check-ins are not a hassle.”
It’s in your best interest to network before you actually need to.
After years of experience in the green energy space, Kaluzhny said, “It’s all about finding the balance between nurturing connections and relaxing because you’re happy where you are. My advice would be to keep networking. Even if you’re not looking for a job, you might meet someone who is, and could be the perfect fit for your company.”
“The best job opportunities can come to you when you’re not looking. How do you keep yourself open to that possibility if you’re putting out a signal to the world that you’re not interested?” Deepak said. “The best time to network is right now. Don’t delay it.”
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