The changing face of sustainability leadership: Why soft skills are becoming more important

In a post-lockdown world, businesses are hiring for new kinds of roles and seeking different skillsets - in the sustainability profession as much as elsewhere. While an uptick in specialised technical roles has been documented, a new form of sustainability leadership, grounded in strong soft skills, is also emerging.

The changing face of sustainability leadership: Why soft skills are becoming more important

The events of the past two years have doubtless caused many of us in the sustainability sphere (and, indeed, in many professions) to reassess our relationship with work. We’ve been forced to grapple with big questions about whether we want to work remotely, and if so, where we really want to live and what hours we want to make. We’ve asked whether our organisations are walking the talk on social and environmental issues, and done soul-searching about how we could feel more fulfilled and make a bigger impact.

Employers are taking note. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report reveals an 83% increase in job posts mentioning flexible working between 2019 and 2021 and a 147% increase in job posts mentioning wellbeing within the same timeframe.

Less researched, in quantitative terms, is the impact that the pandemic has had on the sustainability profession and how leadership in this field is defined. It’s probably on the near horizon, however. LinkedIn’s Global Green Skills report revealed that 13.3% of professionals using the network have some specific sustainability qualifications or experience, with this proportion having grown by more than 38% since 2015.

It bears noting that the same report from LinkedIn names ‘sustainability manager’ as the fastest-growing green job year-on-year. Growth is measured in terms of the number of job postings listed and the number of people calling themselves sustainability managers. Across these measures, there was a 30% uptick between 2020 and 2021.

There are some obvious drivers behind this trend. IEMA’s deputy chief executive officer and director of policy and external affairs Martin Baxter tells edie: “The UK hosting COP26, plus the 2019 net-zero legislation, were two really big and important moments that have been driving activity across the whole economy. To be honest, there was probably a feeling, in some sectors, that they could be in the 20% of remaining emissions [before net-zero was added to the Climate Change Act].

“Couple this with shifts in the finance sector and organisations are required to think a lot more strategically about what the transition to net-zero actually means.”

IEMA represents more than 18,000 individuals involved in the environmental profession, both in the private and public sectors. It is globally recognised and has members in 87 countries.

It is worth noting that Baxter attributes the trend towards a more strategic approach to sustainability, primarily, to factors other than the pandemic. In agreement with him here is the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CISL) programme director for postgraduate education Kayla Friedman.

“COP26 came with big momentum but, frankly, right before the pandemic, we were seeing quite a swell of movement,” Friedman says, pointing to the youth climate movement. Indeed, September 2019 saw the largest climate strikes to date taking place across the world.

Friedman continues: “The urgency for greater sustainability momentum was taking off right before the pandemic – and has only been confirmed by the changes brought about. Now, as we’re returning to some type of new normal, I think this urgency is being picked up.

“We have an opportunity, also, to rethink business practices. A lot of businesses have been thrown into rethinking quite a lot of things and sustainability is on the table.”

Engagement as a gateway to action

With this in mind, it’s logical that the need for strategy development is now a more important part of a sustainability professional’s toolkit than ever before. And, as Healy noted, strategy development is becoming enmeshed with change management as businesses continue to respond to the ever-changing face of the pandemic.

But we know that there’s a gap between ambition and action on sustainability – or we wouldn’t be facing a climate and nature emergency or dealing with rising social inequality. The UN has recorded backwards progress during the pandemic in some parts of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda and, overall, progress is off-track to deliver the Goals by 2030.

Both Baxter and Friedman agree that this context means that sustainability professionals are increasingly expected to go beyond strategy development and deliver results – not incremental results, but rapid, transformational change. This was noted by Futerra’s chief solutionist Solitaire Townsend as she chaired edie’s 2022 Sustainability Leaders Forum earlier this month, describing attendees as “answer activists”.

As Friedman puts it: “Ten years ago, people were looking for specific knowledge and training.

“The problem used to be convincing people that change needed to happen, Now, the problem is actually changing things….What [boards] are looking for is people with a proven track record on action, who we know can get stuff done.”

Baxter elaborates by outlining how engagement is a necessary foundation for delivering action: “Our members are having to work much more closely with the C-suite…. They have to have leadership capabilities that enable them to engage all parts of the organisation, right up to the top.

“Tied to that, there’s a lot more focus on partnership and collaborative working.

“In a way, there’s always been a need for professionals to work strategically with functions like procurement and design. That’s now coming to the fore. Companies are realising that all functions need to get behind this agenda and, therefore, the role of the sustainability professional is to lead and coordinate that activity.

“Your effectiveness is contingent on other people being effective.

Effective collaborators, Baxter notes, are able to sell the benefits of sustainability to different internal functions by translating them into their language. This language will be different for board members than it is for the design team, and different again for procurement, and so on.

Baxter also believes that good collaborators are able to reframe problems, think critically and manage projects; all of these skills boost your credibility with those you’re working alongside.

Distributing skillsets and toolsets

Also championing collaboration and engagement is the Institute for Corporate Responsibility’s (ICRS) co-director Sam Healy, who neatly summarises:  “The job of the sustainability professional is to not have to do it all, but to make sure that it gets done.”

For Healy, whose primary role is as corporate responsibility director at QinetiQ, this is partly due to the increased demand for turning ambitions into action from boards. But other key drivers are “significant additional scrutiny from stakeholders and a whole raft of new [legal and regulatory] requirements”.

Compound this with the sheer amount of information on sustainability that is out there, be that scientific research, case studies or media content. Add the fact that no the issues which the SDGs aim to address are global and systemic, meaning that no one organisation can solve them. And, it becomes clear that sustainability teams cannot succeed in isolation – especially as they are often small.

Sustainability professionals are increasingly expected not only to act as internal communicators, Healy explains, but also the leaders of collaborations externally – often on a pre-competitive basis. A quick scroll through the edie news archives will bring up all manner of external collaborations between businesses within the same sector; businesses across the value chain for the same materials, or businesses and academia.

Whether collaboration is internal or external, Healy outlines a three-pronged approach popularised by Stephen Covey: mindset, skillset, toolset. Changing the opinions of others or helping them to interpret big, global challenges in their day-to-day work is the mindset part. Beyond this, she argues, sustainability leadership entails ensuring that other teams get the training and tools they need to play their part.

Without the skillset and toolset distribution, it is clear to see how it’d be harder to frame sustainability as a shared endeavour. It seems more of an extra chore, pushed on teams from the top-down. With a new wave of climate disinformation emerging in the face of the energy price crisis, this is something all businesses with net-zero ambitions will surely be keen to avoid.

This is the first half of a two-part feature, published as part of edie’s ongoing Business Leadership Month editorial campaign throughout March 2022. The second half can be found here.

Sarah George

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