Reskilling the sustainability managers of tomorrow


Corporate sustainability is growing in importance, day by day. Businesses are regularly being called out for greenwashing and consumers increasingly want to only associate themselves with companies that take sustainability seriously, so the need for senior leadership teams and the C-suite to consider environmental footprints has substantially grown.

But, of course, businesses are struggling. Although 90 per cent of business leaders think sustainability is important, only 60% of companies have a sustainability strategy. With the world already on the road to net zero, some businesses have begun hiring sustainability managers that can focus on their company’s environmental impact before they get left behind.

Alison Watson, head of the School of Leadership and Management at Arden University says that businesses should be aware of the different actions they can take to make their company greener. From recycling, using less plastic and cutting down waste, to fuelling with more efficient energy and encouraging employees to reduce their own personal carbon footprint, there are several small and big steps businesses can take to ease their impact on the environment. 

However, for stronger, more long-term impact, incorporating sustainability into all leadership roles is needed. More businesses across the globe need to ensure their actions and decisions are made with sustainability at their core. On top of this, a strong sustainability strategy needs to be implemented to ensure the business is working in the right direction and is taking the correct approach.

Sustainable leadership skills

Sustainability leaders will be under intense pressure to incorporate sustainable practices into everything they do to ensure businesses around the globe are contributing to the social, environmental and economic issues impacting our planet.

Watson points to a McKinsey study which suggests that companies need to take climate considerations into account when looking at capital allocation, development of products or services, and supply chain management, among other things. This will require a change in mindset, new operating models, and tools and processes to integrate climate risk into decision making.

“It is no longer about autocratic leadership – empowerment and development are now more the norm,” explains Watson. “From a young age, we are encouraged to explore our creativity and develop our self-awareness to enhance critical thinking. This approach plays a key part when it comes to sustainable leadership, alongside taking a more holistic view.

“This means that instead of getting caught up on ‘everyday’ matters, businesses will need to be able to ally short-term objectives with longer-term, strategic plans that consider objectives relating to economic health, the environment, people and society. Sustainability managers, therefore, will need to have a comprehensive worldview that contemplates and understands humanity’s place as part of a global ecosystem and will need to be able to lead and influence others. To incorporate sustainability at the core of business decisions, leaders will be expected to be informed and base their strategies on sound moral and ethical principles.”

For Watson, this requires holistic leadership – an approach to leadership that incorporates not only what leaders need to do and how they will do it, but also the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ of leadership. This will require strong collaboration – the best sustainability leaders will want to seek involvement in networks that can broaden their understanding of the business landscape and the way it impacts our world.

Sustainability business leaders will also need to take into account a variety of cultures, livelihoods, backgrounds and experiences to truly make a decision that considers everyone. Human health, agriculture and food security, water supply, transportation, energy and ecosystems are expected to become increasingly disruptive throughout this century and beyond due to climate change.

Not only will businesses need to be able to make sustainable decisions to counteract the rapid decline of the planet, but they will need to be aware of the changes in society that come with it. This, therefore, will require ‘long-term thinking’. While a hallmark of the modern CEO is in-the-moment decisiveness, future leaders can become more focused on sustainability by making sure to align short-term business objectives with longer-term, strategic plans.

Reskilling leaders with sustainability at the core

For a sustainable strategy to work, businesses will need to extend their open approach to problem-solving and will need to put collaboration at the heart of what they do. This may mean that spending time upskilling and training leadership teams involved in implementing the company’s sustainability strategy will help future-proof it and ensure its longevity in being successful for what it is set out to do.

Sustainability comes with challenges that are beyond the scope of individual organisations and sectors – whether that is corporate business, the government, or civil society. To be able to provide effective solutions, studies have shown that cross-sector, inter-organisational partnering is vital.

A big part of the onus on sustainability training is on higher education. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals states that education providers should “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”, and that higher education institutions should help students develop the capabilities to be future generators of sustainable value for business and society – creating an inclusive and sustainable global economy.

“Sustainable leadership needs to go beyond the temporary gains in achievement scores to create long-lasting, meaningful improvements in learning processes. Universities and educational institutions should ensure their courses are problem-based, involve opportunities for shared inquiry, create opportunities to be reflective about lessons being learned, and provide multiple touches on key topics so students can work through the learning cycle,” advocates Watson.

“Good leadership begins with awareness of self and others, so to implement change, the best leaders take others along on this journey with them, not only by influencing and inspiring, but also by educating their teams so they understand the reasons behind the decisions being made.

“This means reskilling will require developing strong, interpersonal skills that focus on collaboration and effective communication. Managers should not be afraid to build a culture of learning within their business and should take time to engage with other sustainability leaders to develop the knowledge they need.”

Susanne Wright, marketing and strategy director at Clearly Drinks Limited, provides a good example of this. Starting out in a solely marketing and strategic planning role within the business, her job has since transitioned into becoming the sustainability lead and overseeing company ESG strategies, something she feels she learned a great deal about very quickly.

“In addition to learning on the job, it has been invaluable for me to use external resources to expand my knowledge of the subject, something that should not be overlooked when training the sustainability managers of tomorrow,” notes Wight.

“To make further progress, we worked with Positive Planet to validate the company’s emissions and advise on areas of improvement within the business to help set out our ambitious ESG roadmap. Not only that, but we also completed carbon literacy training with all our office staff, meaning the business will be accredited as carbon literate. As our team becomes carbon literate, they will be empowered to recognise ways in which we can reduce our climate impact and feel motivated to support organisational objectives that relate to reducing carbon emissions or adapting to climate change.

“At Clearly Drinks, we believe sustainability should be championed by everyone in the business rather than just one department, and that it must become an intrinsic part of our day-to-day culture. By championing sustainability managers and investing in the training and external tools they need for success, it can help drive businesses toward strategies that safeguard the planet for the future.”

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