Paving the Way: How Should the Next Generation Prepare for Leadership Roles in Sustainability?
01 September 2023
Sustainability is a topic of immense importance, holding relevance for each and every one of us. As interest in sustainability leadership roles continues to grow and the imperative for focusing on sustainability becomes even greater, learning how to navigate this field is now more crucial than ever. It is an exciting time to seek out opportunities that enable leaders to make a meaningful impact in the area of sustainability and beyond.
In this context, a recent Bluesteps webinar brought together a panel of senior-level search consultants and industry experts, including Martin Bernard, Partner at Signium Belgium. With people, culture & sustainability at the heart of his professional pursuits and a strong global background, he offered his unique perspectives during the discussion.
The webinar centered around 3 main areas:
1. What are the major trends in sustainability and how will they evolve in the future?
Bernard highlighted the following key trends:
Growing societal demand: Society increasingly expects organizations to be part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem. This demand is becoming clearer, with activism and policy-making efforts gaining momentum, particularly in Europe.
Collective action and impact leadership: There is a shift towards collective action and impact leadership in sustainability. It is no longer sufficient for sustainability efforts to rely solely on individual initiatives. Collaboration throughout organizations, value chains and the larger ecosystem is vital for effective change. Within organizations, sustainability considerations are spreading beyond the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) role. It is crucial for sustainability to permeate all functions, from Finance and HR to operations and to start at board-level.
Challenges in meeting sustainability targets: Meeting environmental and social sustainability targets, particularly the ones associated with the planetary boundaries such as carbon emission reductions in line with agreements like the Paris Agreement, remains a significant challenge. Many targets associated with sustainable goals set by the United Nations are also off track.
Bernard’s insights suggest that these trends will continue to shape the sustainability landscape in the future. He emphasized that whilst there are challenges and high stakes in the field of sustainability, there are extremely exciting opportunities for individuals and organizations who seek to have a meaningful impact.
2. How can you effectively position yourself for a role in sustainability?
The panel shared insights and advice on transitioning or starting a career in sustainability, challenges in changing from other industries, and considerations when making a career move to a firm with a strong sustainability focus.
According to Bernard, when assessing a career move into sustainability, as with any career move, it is important to align your values and career aspirations with the organization’s purpose and impact. Many companies claim to place sustainability as a core part of their agenda, but it is essential to distinguish those genuinely committed to making an impact from those merely seeking to create an image or perception. Evaluating the authenticity of a company’s sustainability efforts, how it is lived throughout the organization, and its accompanying business strategies are key factors to consider when looking at opportunities.
Bernard emphasized that sustainability-focused business strategies tend to differ significantly from traditional ones due to their wider scope and longer timeframes. Long-term visions, often over a few decades, such as those embraced by companies like Unilever, require proactive steps taken years in advance. Evaluating whether an organization reflects this long-range thinking and has leadership aligned with sustainability goals is essential when exploring career opportunities.
3. How can you navigate an executive search for sustainability roles?
Here, Bernard again emphasized the importance of aligning purpose and values. Candidates who demonstrate a strong alignment with the organization’s purpose and values are sought after. In addition, qualities such as passion, energy, creativity, resilience, a collaborative leadership style, and knowledge in sustainability or ESG-related areas among others, are highly valued.
To excel in sustainability roles, strong listening skills and the ability to collaborate with diverse perspectives are crucial. This skill set enables sustainability leaders to engage effectively with stakeholders, including NGOs, activists, suppliers, clients, and even competitors. Actively listening and embracing diverse perspectives facilitate the building of strong relationships, the cultivation of meaningful partnerships, and the driving of positive change toward a more sustainable future.
Best Advice for Aspiring Sustainability Leaders
In closing, each panelist shared one quick tip for aspiring sustainability leaders. Bernard noted,
“Invest in self-perception and vertical development. The ability to translate skills to different situations, particularly in the context of complexity and systems thinking. We really need to be able to address these kinds of [sustainability challenges] in a different way to what we are used to.”
Key Questions on Sustainability Leadership for C-Suite Executives
As sustainability becomes increasingly vital in leadership roles, it’s crucial for C-suite executives to grasp the evolving landscape. Here are key questions answered by Martin GP Bernard, Partner at Signium Belgium, in a recent Bluesteps webinar.
Understanding Trends and Challenges in Sustainability:
How is society’s demand for organizations to be more sustainable manifesting?
What does the shift towards collective action and impact leadership in sustainability mean for our organization?
What are the significant challenges in meeting sustainability targets such as those associated with agreements like the Paris Agreement?
How to Position Yourself for a Role in Sustainability:
How can you align your values and career aspirations with an organization’s purpose and impact in the field of sustainability?
How do business strategies with a sustainability focus differ from traditional ones, and what does this mean for our organization?
Navigating an Executive Search for Sustainability Roles:
What traits are sought after in candidates for sustainability roles?
Why are strong listening skills and the ability to collaborate with diverse perspectives crucial for sustainability leadership?
Advice for Aspiring Sustainability Leaders:
Why is investing in self-perception and vertical development essential for aspiring sustainability leaders?
How can leaders translate their skills to different situations, particularly in the context of complexity and systems thinking?
The future of sustainability leadership is already here. It’s time C-suite executives seize the opportunity to drive meaningful change by answering these critical questions.