Any change within organizations is dependent on the desire, action and inspiration of its leaders. In order to promote the great transformation necessary to build a sustainable and inclusive economy – the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century – companies must be led by professionals who believe in the cause and are capable of reconciling business with environmental preservation, social equity and cultural diversity.
Unfortunately, even today, experience in sustainability is only required for 4% of job vacancies posted for non-executive leaders and senior executives, according to Russell Reynolds. This data is found in the study “Leadership for the Decade of Action”, launched by the United Nations Global Compact in partnership with the human resources consultancy.
The work aims to “help companies identify, enable and develop their own leaders” so that they can affect paradigm shifts in business, which are increasingly necessary and more demanded by a growing share of consumers, employees, investors and society in general.
To conduct the study, 55 senior leaders were selected, drawn from all continents and from multiple sectors, who were able to integrate sustainability into their companies’ business strategies, while obtaining commercial results.
Analyzing the action and thinking of these professional through in-depth interviews, a matrix of attributes of “sustainable-minded” leaders was created, composed of four aspects that reveal their key predicates:
> Multilevel Systems Thinking: “They face the complex challenges of sustainability in collaboration with other businesses, civil society organizations, academia and Governments.”
> Stakeholder Inclusion: “They do not manage stakeholders, they include them. For this, they demonstrate high levels of empathy and authenticity. And whenever possible, they seek to actively involve stakeholders in actioning the decisions and sharing the benefits.”
> Disruptive Innovation: “They consider that transformation only occurs with exponential changes and business model innovation. They seek out the best available science, are comfortable not having all the answers and confidently steer into the unknown.”
> Long-Term Activation: “They set audacious goals and rigorously drive concerted action and investments in their pursuit of those goals. This requires a great deal of courage and resilience to stay the course in the face of setbacks and to make unpopular decisions.”
The study states, with absolute reason, that “CEOs and board members to effectively drive the transformation needed to integrate sustainability into business strategy and operations, they must embed it in the leadership culture of their organizations.”
To this end, it provides recommendations for achieving sustainability in the structures and processes that define how leaders are selected, developed, rewarded and promoted:
> Selection: “Ensure boards and CEOs apply sustainable leadership potential and track record as key criteria when selecting senior leaders.”
> Develop: “Make sustainable mindset and leadership attributes a core focus of leadership development and crucible experiences.”
> Reward: “Integrate sustainability into the objectives, incentives and remuneration of board members, CEOs and executives.”
> Succession: “Embed conversations about sustainable leadership potential into your succession management framework and succession planning.”
It serves as an excellent roadmap for companies to adopt a deep, strategic and integrated approach to the Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs, with recommendations for nine areas, grouped into three guidelines:
> “Anchoring Ambition in Strategy and Governance”;
> “Deepening Integration Across Operations”;
> “Enhancing Stakeholder Engagement”.
There is no lack of evidence and diagnostics that prove that the precepts of sustainability are an imperative for humans. Nor is there a lack of global and local institutions and articulations, agendas for change, KPIs, goals and successful models of sustainable business.
However, 20 years after the creation of the Global Compact, now endorsed by 11,017 companies from 157 countries, and with ten years remaining to reach the goals of Agenda 2030, the challenges are still enormous.
In terms of the roles and responsibilities of companies, intention must become action, and at a greater scale and speed that what we witness today. As the Global Pact with Russell Reynolds study prefaces states, the key to this is “making sustainability sustainable.”