Why attracting and retaining sustainability leadership makes a world of sense

These days, everyone’s talking about making business more sustainable ‒ and sustainability leadership is central to ensuring these words become actions. Purpose-driven employees and candidates want to work for companies that live and breathe the values by which they brand themselves. Sustainable business starts with sustainable leadership – and this is increasingly taking the form of a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) joining the C-suite to drive awareness and engage key decision-makers in achieving sustainable outcomes. Recruiting for sustainable leadership implies a shake-up in the way board and C-suite leaders are selected, but if done well, it can ensure a company’s future won’t cost the earth.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: 

Bringing in sustainable leadership reassures present and future employees that a company is taking CSR seriously. Organisations that invest in change from the top-down, and show their workforce and the world that deep cultural transformation is possible, will lead by example.

  • CSOs ensure an organisation’s business practices are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. They need unwavering belief, unflinching vision, a deep understanding of the business and great powers of persuasion to drive real change at board level.
  • Sustainable leaders can move from one industry to another, and this can be of great benefit for a company, especially if the candidate comes from an organisation or sector with a well-established sustainability agenda.
  • Greenwashing won’t wash with today’s purpose-driven employees and candidates, who will hold a company to task for making empty promises. They want concrete CSR actions that help them feel seen, heard and proud of the fruits of their labour.
     

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Giving sustainable leadership the green light 

Millennials are set to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. They are typically drawn towards companies with a demonstrably strong sense of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and away from those whose sustainability promises don’t translate into business practices.

Sustainability professionals are very smart. They know if a company is just ticking a box when hiring a sustainability leader. They will only make a career move if they can identify a company's intentions to take action and if they truly believe they can make a difference and drive real change in an organisation.

Nina Buttle, Senior Partner UK 

“Sustainability professionals are very smart. They know if a company is just ticking a box when hiring a sustainability leader. They will only make a career move if they can identify a company’s intentions to take action and if they truly believe they can make a difference and drive real change in an organisation,” says Nina Buttle, Partner UK.

A 2021 MIT study reveals there’s still ground to cover – while 90% of executives think sustainability is important, only 60% of companies have a sustainability strategy. The time to act is now. Many investment organisations base their go or no-go decisions on assessment tools that connect ESG performance with corporate performance. Kudos for sustainable business practices travels fast, but so does backlash against hollow claims. With climate change trending on virtually every thread, today’s employees and candidates voice their opinions on the subject far and wide.

Attracting and retaining sustainability-focused leaders requires a cultural shift in which sustainability knowledge is shared and put to work, to create visibility for a company’s values and behaviour. The question organisations must now ask themselves is not just what might happen if they make the leap towards sustainable leadership – but what could happen if they don’t, as Joanna Bonnett, Head of Sustainability PageGroup explains: “There is no greater priority than protecting and preserving our planet. We have an urgent need for sustainable leaders who can drive financial success and ensure our survival.”

Building momentum for the CSO

The role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is set to gain even greater prominence in the next few years – with Deloitte hailing it the “sense-maker in chief” in an organisation. A CSO embodies a company’s commitment to embedding ESG into all its business practices. The Acre white paper The Emergence of the Chief Sustainability Officer highlights the versatility crucial to becoming and staying a successful sustainable leader: The CSO must collaborate with the C-suite on embedding effective processes and practices, convincing shareholders, reassuring employees, and engaging with policymakers and regulators to build a truly sustainable business for future generations.

Sharp analytical skills are essential among these leaders, as they undertake to propel an organisation forward with a much lighter carbon footprint. “Whilst increased access to information has revolutionised the business world, it's fair to say many organisations drown in data. In terms of sustainability, leadership will certainly have a challenge in the near future in being able to obtain, manage and translate data into meaningful actions," Bonnett affirms.

Whilst increased access to information has revolutionised the business world, it's fair to say many organisations drown in data. In terms of sustainability, leadership will certainly have a challenge in the near future in being able to obtain, manage and translate data into meaningful actions.  

Joanna Bonnett, Head of Sustainability PageGroup

Sustainability leaders also need keen strategy skills to measure the risks and opportunities of each ESG action, and to keep an organisation competitive. Ultimately, CSOs are agents of transformation, who must inspire those above and below them, and revolutionise corporate culture from the inside out. Even with the board onboard, exceptional soft skills are required to convince clients, shareholders and employees that change is inevitable, positive and sustainable. People who do well in these roles are passionate about sustainable practice, well versed in the circular economy and can articulate their methodologies effectively and coherently. “Thought leadership is becoming more and more visible in sustainable leadership. Companies need to be sure they have the right spokesperson to transmit their practices with transparency and authenticity,” concludes Bonnett.

Download full PDF 8 Executive Trends 2022


Hiring outside the box

Sustainable leadership skills can emerge in unlikely places. Thankfully, they are transferable across industries, and can prove highly valuable when crossing into a new sector. As the role demands a broad range of skills, CSOs typically come from diverse backgrounds including environmental management, research, business development, finance and legal.[1] If businesses want to increase their pool of expertise surrounding sustainability, they must be open to welcoming talent from other industries. Hiring cross-sector makes perfect sense as some industries are more advanced than others, as Buttle explains: “Traditionally, the manufacturing and oil & gas industries have been more aware of ESG implications, particularly around environmental impact, and some of the more service-minded industries and financial services could benefit from their lessons, as they look at their sustainability strategy.”

Smart recruiters are driving the ESG agenda from an internal perspective, enabling them to assess potential candidates, identify their motives and support companies through the ‘thought to action’ process. Some also move sustainability professionals between industries – something that’s now a blossoming trend and speaks volumes about a company’s willingness to embrace change.

“It’s very easy for candidates to identify if a company is serious about driving change within the organisation, which should not be ignored if they wish to attract and retain the right executive talent, with the right skillset and the right motives,” Buttle concludes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: 

Bringing in sustainable leadership reassures present and future employees that a company is taking CSR seriously. Organisations that invest in change from the top-down, and show their workforce and the world that deep cultural transformation is possible, will lead by example.

  • CSOs ensure an organisation’s business practices are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. They need unwavering belief, unflinching vision, a deep understanding of the business and great powers of persuasion to drive real change at board level.
  • Sustainable leaders can move from one industry to another, and this can be of great benefit for a company, especially if the candidate comes from an organisation or sector with a well-established sustainability agenda.
  • Greenwashing won’t wash with today’s purpose-driven employees and candidates, who will hold a company to task for making empty promises. They want concrete CSR actions that help them feel seen, heard and proud of the fruits of their labour.

      Summary

      Why attracting and retaining sustainability leadership makes a world of sense.

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