6 soft skills sustainability leaders need to hone in 2022

In the wake of the pandemic and with the net-zero transition on the horizon, businesses are being tasked with delivering unprecedented transformation to deliver a sustainable future. So, what skills will their teams need to achieve big goals?

6 soft skills sustainability leaders need to hone in 2022

Dozens of sustainability leaders gathered for frank discussions and workshops on future-ready skills today

With this question in mind, the edie team hosted a Sustainability Skills Seminar in London today (7 March), as a precursor to our Sustainability Leaders Forum this week (scroll down for details).

During the course of an afternoon, more than a dozen expert speakers delivered speeches, panel talks and hands-on workshops designed to help attendees identify how they can improve their skillsets and become more effective sustainability leaders.

Here, edie rounds up six of the speakers’ key recommendations.

While much has been said about the more technical roles that ever more businesses are creating, like carbon accountants and biodiversity experts, this piece focuses on the softer skills that are transferable and applicable to a range of roles.

1) The ability to take a step back, rest and recharge

It may seem counterintuitive to put this as the first point. However, during her keynote speech, Ripple & Co’s director Eileen Donnelly reflected on how remote working has made it possible – and even expected – for many of us to work above and beyond our contracted hours. Add this to a rapid cycle of negative environmental news which feeds the ever-increasing pressure on sustainability teams, which are often small, to deliver rapid and outstanding results, and you have a recipe for burnout.

Donnelly encouraged all sustainability professionals to hone their ability to recognise their own wellbeing needs and to take the time to meet them. She emphasized how this can often help professionals return with a new perspective on the challenges they are working to solve.

2) Perseverance and resilience

Building on this first point, the need for sustainability professionals to recognise that they are completing marathons – not sprints – was raised by several speakers throughout the day. Indeed, many corporate sustainability goals will lie not only outside of a single business cycle, but outside of the working lifespan of the professionals who first developed them.

AB Sugar’s head of advocacy Katharine Teague said that if she could give everyone in the profession a superpower, it would be the gift of more time; not only time to themselves to think outside of the box and care for their wellbeing, but the ability to make key stakeholders stop searching for an instant silver bullet and to take the time to recognise the complexity of challenges and the need for a blend of solutions.

Similarly, Donnelly repeatedly mentioned the importance of “tenacity underpinned by humility”. Specifically speaking about communications and engagement, she said: “when one way doesn’t work, that is not when you give up. It is when you try a different approach.”

And, also on communications specifically, Forster Communications’ director of client services George Ames said all good strategies must be underpinned by “commitment and perseverance”. Stakeholders are no longer looking for one-off “bursts” of communications around events like Earth Day – they need to see more, lest you face a greenwashing accusation, Ames explained.

3) The ability to translate and simplify

Despite the need to play the long game, many stakeholders are likely looking for rapid answers to questions, as they will be pressed for time. It is, therefore, important that sustainability professionals are able to break down complex concepts and bold targets, explaining them in a way that stakeholders can understand.

When asked what sustainability superpower she thinks is strongest, Grosvenor Property UK’s executive director of sustainability and innovation Tor Burrows said “consensus-building” – the ability to talk to all departments internally, and all key external stakeholders, in an engaging way.

She outlined how sustainability leaders should be “the eyes and ears” but also the “translator”. “Eyes and ears” refer to the responsibility to help people see the bigger trends beyond their day-to-day and current projects; “translator” refers to the ability to succinctly explain this in a way that they understand and find interesting.

Beyond just explaining a concept, Burrows added, it is important that each function or individual knows exactly what they need to do to contribute to a big transformation like net-zero. Otherwise, they may feel that the responsibility sits elsewhere – as will the rewards and the credit.

4) A willingness to fail, and fail quickly

As MyMynd’s co-founder Henry Majed put it: “We all have sustainability superpowers, but we’re not always able to use them. There are often barriers to activating them, and I genuinely believe that fear is the biggest barrier. And failure is a major fear.”

In the digital age, when mistakes can quickly go viral, it was acknowledged several times during the seminars that professionals are perhaps more afraid of failure than they may once have been. Another key factor feeding the fear is that leadership expectations are changing rapidly, with improved climate science, changing regulation and shifting investor and consumer demands.

But speakers including AB Sugar’s Teague and Ripple & Co’s Donnelly agreed that we ultimately need to feel the fear and do it anyway, so we can learn and move on as quickly as possible.

“Perfection is often the enemy of progress,” Forster Communications’ Ames summarised. “Don’t become paralysed by complexity into not doing anything,” Grosvenor Property UK’s Burrows added.

A practical idea for actioning this came from Hubbub’s founder and chief executive Trewin Restorick. He explained how his organisation regularly hosts ‘f*** up Fridays’ – meetings at the end of the week where participants can identify approaches that did not work well and why, in a judgement-free environment.

5) A human-centric approach to leadership

When asked about how she thinks the role of the leader has changed in recent years, Ripple & Co’s Donnelly said:  “It’s become more obvious that what people are looking for in leaders is more humanity –  hope, compassion and trust… a good leader will see the need, now, for a lot more communication and a huge sense of humility”.

For Donnelly, this is partly because Covid-19 is “a very human crisis” compared to the crises most commonly facing corporates, such as media scandals or large-scale product recalls. Line managers will, in the past two years, likely had to oversee furloughs and redundancies and deal with colleagues facing bereavement, taking on homeschooling, or needing extra time off sick.

Similarly, MyMynd’s Majed said that while it was once the job of the leader to “command and control” from the top-down, they must now “lead and enable” from within the fold. While setting a vision from the “top of the mountain” is important to ensure ambitions are high, he explained, the best leaders will spend much time in the valleys with the teams needed to deliver the necessary changes.

6) Collaboration skills

Continuing on his point around working with others rather than talking down to them, Majed said his top sustainability superpower is “understanding that control is an illusion”. Once you understand that you cannot control everything, Majed explained, you understand that responding to uncertainty is “all about working together”, leveraging different strengths from different teams and individuals.

AB Sugar’s Teague and Grosvenor Property UK’s Burrows agreed. They both explained how the development and delivery of good sustainability strategies lies not only in setting ambitious and science-based goals, but being expressly clear about which responsibilities lie with which internal and external groups.

When asked for their advice on becoming a better collaborator, Burrows said it was important to understand what challenges potential collaborators face – and what their priorities are – before proposing a solution. Teague said it was important to put in place a system whereby benefits are celebrated and rewarded collectively, as the traditional competitive systems may prevent people from wanting to participate.

For more information on building strong collaborative partnerships, readers are encouraged to access this recent exclusive interview on that topic with Walgreens Boots Alliance’s vice president for CSR Una Kent.

There’s still time to register for edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022.

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will take place on 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Sarah George

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