Sustainability skills ‘should be a pre-requisite for more executive positions’

Experience within or a passion for sustainability was a requirement for just 4% of non-executive and senior-executive appointments made in 2019 - a trend which must change if businesses are to tackle the climate crisis and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sustainability skills ‘should be a pre-requisite for more executive positions’

More than 3

That is the key conclusion of a new analysis from UN Global Compact (UNGC), which assessed sustainable business practices at 55 large organisations across the themes of strategy development, operational execution and stakeholder engagement.

The analysis additionally explored how frequently sustainability was a factor in more than 3,900 senior executive and non-executive appointments made in 2019. For 15% of these roles, sustainability was mentioned in the advertisement. For just 4%, candidates were required to prove that they had either previous training or experience in the sustainability, energy or CSR professions.

UNGC’s report states that sustainability is currently not considered “core to the DNA of leadership teams”, even at businesses which are striving to embed environmental and social considerations in all departments – but that this is set to change rapidly as the demands of investors, consumers, employees and other stakeholders shift, and as nations bolster their green policy packages.

Sustainability is increasingly seen as “a leadership issue and imperative to long-term success”, the report states that this change in positioning is only likely to accelerate in the wake of Covid-19.

This assertation is rooted in both third-party quantitative evidence and in qualitative evidence given by executive-level professionals with “a notable track record of focusing on and making progress towards sustainability goals in tandem with commercial results”. Such speakers include Paul Polman, co-founder of IMAGINE and former chief executive of Unilever; Alfred Kelley, chair and chief executive of Visa; Brad Smith, president of Microsoft; Suzanne Lindsay-Walker, UPS’s chief sustainability officer, and Sylvie Nichol, Henkel’s executive VP for human resources and infrastructure services.

Based on these findings, UNGC sets out what it describes as a “new model for leadership”, which businesses should follow if they wish to get ahead of the curve and deliver a truly embedded and holistic sustainability approach.  The model is centred around stakeholder inclusion (i.e. delivering benefits beyond profit and engaging all stakeholders in key decision-making activities); multi-level systems thinking; disruptive innovation and long-term activation. Taking these actions, UNGC argues, can deliver an embedded “sustainable mindset” across the whole business and “make sustainability sustainable”.

Executive recruitment firm Russell Reynolds Associates collaborated with UNGC to produce the analysis. Its chief executive Clarke Murphy said that while some organisations may be tempted to reduce sustainability ambition and action as they financially recover from Covid-19, the pandemic has laid bare the need for businesses to tackle “persisting challenges” around nature and society. As such, businesses positioning themselves as sustainability leaders through actions, not words, are likely to prove the most resilient during the pandemic and beyond.

Murphy, along with UNGC’s executive director Lise Kingo, also emphasised the fact that the pandemic does not pause or stop the climate or nature emergencies, nor does it change the fact that there is less than a decade left to meet the SDGs.

You’re hired?

The changing role of the sustainability professional and the need for sustainability experience in boardrooms have proven something of a hot topic in recent months, in light of the pressures that mounting climate activism and changing green legislation are bringing to businesses across the globe.

In February, H&M Group appointed Helena Helmersson, who served five years within the fashion giant’s sustainability team, as its new chief executive. The move marked the first time a global corporation has appointed a former sustainability manager to lead the company.

Responding to the news, key figures across the green economy were quick to argue that it could shift requirements for boardroom positions, following a sea-change in the attitudes of investors, employees and consumers in recent years.

At a recent edie roundtable event, senior sustainability professionals told of how their skills and services were being more commonly called-upon by the board since the climate and plastics movements began to result in concrete changes to green policy packages.

Sarah George

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