Inspirational collaborators: The new priorities for sustainability professionals

edie's 2019 Sustainable Business Leadership Survey provided much for sustainability teams to celebrate. More than 75% of chief executives and corporate boards were found to be somewhat or very engaged with sustainability, and more than 70% of respondents said their organisation would be more committed to sustainability in 2019 than it was in 2017/18.

Inspirational collaborators: The new priorities for sustainability professionals

Sustainability is a young concept in the business world; the expertise, commitment and determination of sustainability professionals have been critical in building the business case and evidence that chief executives now use to inform long-term business strategies.

However, although 40% of respondents in the Edie Survey said that in the future there should be no standalone sustainability function at all, as it should be fully integrated across all areas of the business, that time has not yet arrived. Indeed, instead of integration, sustainability teams must focus on centralisation.

Centralisation not integration

Now chief executives are standing up for purpose, sustainability professionals must quickly evolve from being seen as technical experts to being recognised as strategic leaders with skills and insights that put sustainability at the heart of key business decisions. They should report to the chief executive and be central to driving action across every aspect of the company, from HR to R&D, potentially leading to a dedicated board function.

Even though senior leadership teams and those involved in supply chain/procurement and corporate communications are increasingly engaged with sustainability, in many companies there remains a gap between them and department heads, country leads or other senior managers who are still being judged on unreformed metrics and KPIs. 

The edie Survey reiterated this lack of interest from key departments: 24% of finance departments were felt to be not at all engaged or somewhat disengaged with sustainability; 23% of IT departments, 18% of legal departments and 16% of HR departments. This is despite the proven links between sustainability actions and productivity, employee recruitment and retention, and the pressure for impact metrics from the new corporate governance code and the Wates Principles.

New skills for sustainability success

As sustainability teams move out of the shadows towards the centre of an organisation, their role is changing. Tasked with turning purpose statements and values into action and impacts, it is no surprise that the edie Survey found collaborating, networking and knowledge sharing to be the most important skills for the sustainability function, closely followed by motivating and empowering, and communicating, listening and storytelling. Deep technical knowledge was the least important. This is echoed in the Annual CR and Sustainability Salary Survey 2019, which cites influencing and persuading the top competency for maximum effectiveness.

It is not a lack of opportunities or ideas that prevents most sustainability progress, but complexity which causes intimidation and siloed decision-making, particularly around finance, that prevents delivery. Sustainability teams cannot bring their company purpose to life without uniting disparate departments. Alongside the ability to show how initiatives support business strategy, and exemplary negotiation skills, they need to create a shared goal around which every individual can unite. A combination of rational and emotional levers that enables action. By taking a central, strategic role, sustainability leaders can begin to fully affect the change they want to see for the benefit of the business and the world at large.

HR teams are a natural starting place for partnership as without a commonly held interest in sustainability across the business, companies risk losing the trust of their people. Edelman’s 2019 Global Trust Barometer cited ‘societal impact’ as the most important driver in building trust in employers, with 67% of respondents expecting a prospective employer to have a greater purpose and offer a job that has a meaningful societal impact.

These are exciting times and – as the clock ticks towards 2020 and marks 10 years to go towards the SDG deadline – sustainability is increasingly in the spotlight. The task remains huge but the focus has shifted from the wings to central stage, with the CEO as the leader and communications skills as key to success. Today’s sustainability leaders need to be inspirational collaborators.

To see more in-depth results from edie’s Sustainable Business Leadership Survey 2019, you can read the full report here.

Amanda Powell-Smith is chief executive of Forster Communications and Klara Kozlov is head of corporate clients at CAF 

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