SkillSpeak Series #3: Professor George Sarrinikolaou

The following interview is a part of SkillSpeak, a series of short interviews with SUMA professors, where they share bits of wisdom and knowledge, advising on skills that are crucial for a successful career in sustainability. This week we have George Sarrinikolaou who teaches the Practicum in Innovative Sustainability Leadership. The interview was conducted by Khyati Thakkar, SUMANI Events Director.

Name: George Sarrinikolaou

Academic Background: B.A. English, Cornell University; M.A. English, Columbia MPA in Environmental Policy, Columbia University

Current Professional Title: Director, Office of Academic and Research Programs, The Earth Institute, Columbia University; Lecturer, M.S. in Sustainability Management, School of Professional Studies, Columbia University

What field within the sustainability realm do you work in?  

I work in sustainability education, developing and managing academic programs geared toward educating future sustainability professionals. Previously, I worked as a sustainability manager, conceiving of, implementing, and managing programs associated with air quality, sustainable design, greenhouse gas reduction, climate change adaptation and neutrality.

What skills have you leveraged on so far, to expand your presence in your field of sustainability?

Sustainability practitioners must have a scientific understanding of environmental problems such as climate change and air pollution, technical knowledge of green technologies such as clean fuels and energy efficiency, as well as quantitative skills to analyze environmental impacts, costs and benefits, etc. But I think that the most important skills in my sustainability career have had to do with the integration of environmental concerns in organizations – the analysis of internal and external environments, interpersonal communication, presentation skills, tact, management, and leadership that it takes to persuade people and organizations to change by accounting for the environment.

What are some of the most relevant skill-building opportunities offered by the SUMA program?

The SUMA program functions at both levels that I identify above. It offers classes in the scientific, technical, and analytical aspects of sustainability, and it also offers courses in understanding, managing, and changing organizations. The program’s science courses, as well as courses such as those in cost benefit analysis, statistics, and financial management are necessary and important. But the skills that will determine whether one can really advance sustainability are to be found in the courses that deal with the integration of environmental concerns in the way that organizations do business. Those courses include Sustainability Management, Sustainable Operations, Sustainable Finance, and the Practicum in Innovative Sustainability Leadership.

What skills would you advise a future SUMA graduate to develop in order to build credibility within your field of sustainability?

Completing the SUMA program and graduating from Columbia University are sufficient in gaining credibility as a professional in the field. But to accomplish anything of substance – if that’s what you mean by building credibility – requires leadership – the determination to change how things work. We face serious environmental problems, which threaten sustainability, because people are unwilling to change how they use resources, what they choose to consume, and how they live. I see the role of the sustainability manager as one in which she uses a combination of policy, technology, but leadership most importantly to achieve change.

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