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Pasubio SpA is a company that knows how to move with the times. It went from making suede moccasins for children in the 1950s to steering wheels for Porsche Carreras in the 2010s. So, when they engaged Page Executive in mid-2022 to find them a Sustainability Director, I knew they’d be open to fresh ideas and candidates with the vision and determination to drive measurable change.
The starting point for any executive search is determining what the client wants. Some companies give headhunters a detailed profile and say, “This is what we want”; others prefer a more collaborative approach and are open to refining their objectives through conversations with their executive search partners.
Pasubio falls into the second category, which suited me just fine. I’ve been passionate about sustainability since the mid-2010s when I began recruiting sustainability profiles in Latin America. Back then, my clients were mainly energy and mining multinationals. But I quickly learned that the core principles of sustainability — accountability, transparency, stakeholder engagement, ethical behaviour and a long-term perspective — apply to any organisation in any sector.
Over the past five years, I’ve refined and developed my understanding of sustainability and corporate governance. I participate in panels and events about sustainability careers, and my team and I constantly track ESG leadership trends in the local and international markets.
We receive many requests from old and existing clients seeking our help in building sustainability functions or creating positions for these roles within their organisations. These clients want suitable candidates who can transform their company culture.
Furthermore, it’s not just large, publicly-traded multinational corporations seeking sustainability leaders. Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and family businesses, especially those with private equity investment, also follow this trend. Companies of all sizes and industries are appointing heads of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) to build their teams and take action.
In short, Page Executive has plenty of credibility in this space, which aligns with Pasubio’s long-standing commitment to ESG. Pasubio began as a family business but is now private equity controlled. The drive to appoint a sustainability director came not only from the capital providers but mainly from the former owner, who is currently the firm’s chief executive officer. He has long been involved in social responsibility activities, particularly in northeastern Italy.
Of course, passion and commitment only get you so far. We needed to hire a world-class sustainability director. In collaboration with the client, we started to build a profile. The first hurdle was to define the kind of sustainability director that would best suit Pasubio’s requirements. In very broad and subjective terms, I find it helpful to classify ESG executives, for my own reference, into the following three groups:
1) The environmental specialist. Their primary focus is environmental problems and projects, sustainable supply chain analysis, etc.
2) The financial executive. They engage with investors and other stakeholders on ESG issues and communicate the company’s ESG performance and strategy to the financial community.
3) The stakeholder engagement expert. This kind of executive puts the “social” in environmental, social and governance. They’re comfortable interacting with internal and external stakeholders and adept at building relationships with local and regional institutions.
It quickly became apparent that Pasubio was looking for a gifted communicator with the vision, influence and persuasive ability to drive initiatives within and outside the company. Susanna came with a solid background in stakeholder engagement. However, she was also well versed in the environmental and financial sides; a rare find, some might say.
Reflecting broader industry trends, we also agreed that the sustainability director should report to the managing director or CEO. There are two main reasons for this. First, the position will have more impact by speaking to people with the highest level of visibility and influence throughout the company. Second, reporting to the CEO increases the likelihood that sustainability messaging and priorities reach the ears of key decision-makers on the board.
But what kind of background would our ideal candidate have? This was a critical area of discussion, and how we resolved it gets to the heart of Page Executive’s bold and conviction-based approach to these kinds of projects. We don’t just provide resumes. One of the things Pasubio appreciated most was the candid and transparent feedback we gave them about finding the best-aligned candidate.
As a prominent provider for the automotive sector, it might have seemed logical to prioritise candidates with solid experience in that particular industry. On the surface, that makes sense; however they were more than happy to broaden their horizons and explore other avenues. While someone from a car-making background might have a deep understanding of that sector’s business and supply-chain challenges, they wouldn’t necessarily have a feel for regional institutions or have the wide-angle vision needed to be an ambassador for Pasubio’s social programmes. That last point is particularly important in Italy, where many small and medium-sized companies are often just as important as the government when it comes to improving the lives of local people — not just providing jobs but funding for schools, infrastructure projects and so on.
No iron rule says you must present your client with five candidates, though that’s the number many executive search teams land on. For this engagement, we were so sure we’d found the best talent available in this field, we put forward just three names.
If this sounds like over-confidence, keep in mind that my team and I had spent several years studying and mapping the local and international sustainability market. We already knew the most important companies and stakeholders developing executive talent in the sustainability field. With this data at our fingertips, it was no surprise that Susanna’s name came up at our first screening.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” candidate, but Susanna came close. She was devising and executing ESG strategies at companies like Novamont and Diadora long before sustainability became what we see today. She represented these companies at high-level European sustainability public events and was instrumental in generating and publishing comprehensive annual sustainability reports. In many ways, her career journey maps closely to the sustainability journey in Italy and across Europe.
What have I learned from this project? First, that roles like these are evolving at warp speed, thanks to investor expectations, regulatory pressure and an increasing focus on sustainability among consumers and the wider public. The priorities and strategies in the ESG and sustainability spaces are changing year by year — and sometimes even quarter by quarter. To keep up, executive search teams must be able to quickly adapt to new trends, adjust their search criteria and pivot their strategies when necessary.
Our sustainability business grew by 120% last year, and 189% since 2019. It has become essential for future-minded businesses to bring social and environmental responsibility to the forefront of their propositions. The reasons are not only ethical – consumers, investors, and top talent are demanding meaningful commitment to ESG.
Joanna BonnettHead of Sustainability, PageGroup
Second, I’ve become convinced that specialised headhunters offer tremendous value to organisations exploring ESG principles and initiatives. This is an emerging field. It’s no surprise, therefore, that companies don’t know exactly what they need in an ESG leader, and how that person (or team) will fit within their organisational structure and interact with stakeholders. That’s where we come in. We’re here for these opening conversations with our clients and to guide them through this exciting but challenging process. By leveraging our experience and expertise, we can help companies find the right sustainability leaders who will not only meet their immediate needs but also help them build a more sustainable future.
Finally, I have come to strongly believe in the vital significance of ESG and its place in today's society. The global business landscape is changing rapidly, and it’s clear that companies that want to thrive need to take ESG seriously. By finding and empowering sustainability leaders, organisations can position themselves for success while also making a positive impact on society and the planet.
Susanna GalliGroup Sustainability Director, Pasubio
What advice would you give sustainability leaders who are considering a new role in another organisation or industry?Sustainability is increasingly complex and integrated into business, with evolving regulations, challenging requests from customers and more detailed expectations from stakeholders. To approach a potential new role, it is important to understand the organisation's specific needs and expectations. Sustainability leaders can then identify whether their own expertise aligns with the employer's requirements.
What transferrable skills can be brought from previous positions and industries?For sustainability roles, technical knowledge is important, but soft skills are also essential. These skills include operating in a dynamic environment, gaining exposure to different aspects of the business and interacting with colleagues and stakeholders with varying goals.
What advice would you give to senior professionals with little ESG/Sustainability experience who want to transition to a sustainability-focused role?Senior professionals can begin by considering how their traditional professional expertise can be viewed through a sustainability lens. They should identify their potential contributions, opportunities and collaborative contributions in the sustainability field. This can serve as a preliminary step towards starting a course of study or specific training to develop the necessary knowledge and expertise.
What should businesses do to drive sustainability efforts and attract and retain top talent?Companies should demonstrate high commitment from the board and top management, embed sustainability into the business plan, invest in sustainability efforts and effectively execute and communicate ESG initiatives. A company with a strong sustainability strategy and commitment is well-positioned to attract and retain top talent.
Laura CarrettaHR Manager, Pasubio
Is the sustainability director a new position in your organisation? What led to its creation?Yes, the sustainability director position is a new addition. The aim is to give importance to ESG projects to ensure compliance, and competitiveness, and to create sustainable values and culture. The role will help achieve sustainability through international growth, operational excellence and people development.
What skills and experience were you looking for in the successful candidate?We were looking for a candidate with a goal-oriented mindset and the ability to develop a sustainability culture. The ideal candidate has to be empathetic, open-minded, and flexible, enabling the company to excel in ESG projects and initiatives.
How open were you to considering candidates from outside the leather industry?At Pasubio, we are always open to finding the right candidate without any restrictions on their background or experience. We believe that "foreign" experiences can facilitate our continuous improvement.
Why did you choose Page Executive as the right executive search firm for this Sustainability-specific leadership role?We chose Page Executive as they align with our views on the sustainability challenge, as evidenced by articles and ideas shared by Guido Caleca. In the past, PageGroup also helped us to hire our sustainability specialist, and their research was accurate and timely.
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