I’ve just handed in my notice after 3.5 years of working for a sustainability start-up. Seeing that in writing feels odd. All of the late nights, late starts, laughs with work wifey, cries with work wifey. Moments where it felt like everything was going to come to a screeching halt; moments where we achieved more than we ever thought we could. All of the everyday moments in between… ‘3.5 years’ doesn’t begin to convey the rollercoaster that is start-up life. 

If I compare who I was back in 2020 (when I started) to who I am now, we’re worlds apart. Of course it’s not the only contributor, but it’s certainly a consequential one. When you’re passionate about driving the mission of a company forward, it occupies a lot of mental real estate. 

So as I head off to explore The Big Scary Unknown, I thought I might share some of my learnings. If you’re about to or thinking of joining a sustainability start-up, here’s what I wish I’d known:

Lesson 1: Set boundaries 

I joined as a passionate (armchair) environmentalist, so getting paid to read and learn about sustainability all day was a dream come true. Until it wasn’t. 

Three months in (not helped by the first lockdown of 2020) I was burnt out – reading about climate atrocities all day had me in a spin.

As the saying more or less goes, with knowledge comes responsibility. With all of this new climate knowledge whirring round in my head, I felt like I had to be the perfect environmentalist. I had fallen out with family members; made myself ill from determinedly walking in the rain; became a hoarder of anything that might be recyclable or fixable. 

My work bled into my personal life and back into my work life again: everything revolved around the climate crisis and my role in clawing it back. 

Unrealistic? Yes. Arrogant? A little. Exhausting? Completely. 

If you want to sustain the energy you have for sustainability you have to set boundaries. Especially if you’re going to spend 8 hours a day thinking about it. My advice now would be: 

Lesson 2: Everything is a learning opportunity

I’ve spent most of my career (read: life) trying to avoid mistakes, seeking to prove my ability, believing that the work I produce and the results I achieve are all that matters. Then one day I read about performance versus growth mindsets.

What I described above is called a ‘performance mindset’, a term coined by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. In this mindset you tend to believe that your abilities are fixed; you are good at what you’re good at and that’s that. Failure is bad, so you avoid tasks where you think you could fail. Everything revolves around the end product and how well it is received by your peers and leaders. 

I was convinced this mindset was right. That it was what people expected of me and was how I was going to succeed in my career. Then I read about growth mindsets, and honestly? I felt silly. Embarrassed even. Once you compare a growth mindset to measuring yourself on performance, you begin to understand how the very best are so successful.

Here’s how someone with a growth mindset thinks:

  • They believe their abilities can be improved through practice. 
  • If something feels difficult, they take it as a sign that they’re learning. 
  • Failure provides useful information for improvement. Everything is a learning opportunity.

This mindset builds resilience. It encourages you to take risks; to fail fast and learn fast. It supports creativity and creative thinking. Plus it supports mental health much more than a performance mindset – it allows you to show up authentically to work every day, and contribute as a human. Flaws and all. 

Talking mindsets might feel out of place in an article about sustainability start-ups, but in my experience it’s actually very relevant. Start-ups are fast paced. There’s a lot of pressure to act quickly – to respond to planetary needs and to take a slice of a relatively unsaturated market.

If you’re naturally performance-oriented, this environment can push you towards performance related habits. Try to resist. Give yourself permission to prioritise your learning over churning out as much as you can. It will pay off in the long run, I promise.

Lesson 3: Leaders are as important as the mission

I used to think that the mission of a purpose-driven start-up was the single most important thing. That as long as it was there and it was something you felt passionate about, you’d find fulfilment at work. 

Over the last 3.5 years, I’ve come to realise that there’s another factor that’s equally (if not more) important: who a start-up’s leaders are.

Leadership in a sustainability start-up must authentically represent the company’s mission and values.

They must believe – and I mean truly believe – in what their company is trying to do. This belief is what will hold them steady when things get choppy. It’s what will drive them to continually seek learning opportunities. It’s what will ensure the company walks the walk as much as it talks the talk. It will even impact the culture that develops as the company grows. 

Leadership’s attitude towards the mission will touch everything and everyone in it, particularly if the company is young and/or small. For magic to happen (growth, impact, reputation, etc.) people need to believe in and respect their leaders. 

So, if you’re thinking of joining a sustainability start-up, find out who its leaders are and get some face time with them as early as possible. Let your judge of character take the wheel and remember: you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. Are they going to inspire you? Will they challenge you? Are they capable of listening, and gauging when to stick to their guns versus when to let the team take the lead?

Leaders will define your experience at a start-up. Be picky about who you trust with that responsibility.

Be Curious

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