UK business leaders most confident in the world on sustainability strategy but lack of accountability threatens progress

Sustainable LeadershipSustainability Officers
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September 20, 2023
5 min read
Sustainable LeadershipSustainability Officers
Executive Summary
A lack of accountability amongst UK business leaders is driving overconfidence in the delivery of corporate sustainability strategies, according to new data.


  • 96% of UK business leaders have concrete sustainability plans while just 32% have sustainability goals measured against performance

  • UK business leaders overwhelmingly see sustainability as a branding opportunity, rather than a growth driver

September 20th London – A lack of accountability amongst UK business leaders is driving overconfidence in the delivery of corporate sustainability strategies, according to new data from Russell Reynolds Associates’ (RRA).

RRA’s Divides and Dividends research found UK senior business leaders are the most confident globally when it comes to delivering on their sustainability targets. A total of 74% report that their business has become more sustainable and they expect to make continued progress, significantly ahead of the global average 59%.

Similarly, 86% of UK business leaders believe that their CEO is personally committed to advancing sustainability, compared to a global average of 76%.

However, this confidence in progress contrasts with figures from the UN’s 2022 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report1, which showed the UK was performing well on just 17% of the country’s SDG targets, with limited progress made since the previous review in 2018.


The accountability gap

RRA’s findings reveal a concerning lack of personal accountability among business leaders to deliver against sustainability targets.

While 87% of UK business leaders are confident that they will meet their sustainability targets, just 49% have personal sustainability targets to deliver against. This disconnect is repeated globally, with 83% of business leaders confident that they will meet targets but just 35% revealing they have personal targets.

The report reveals the benefit of closing the so-called Accountability Divide, showing that when senior leaders globally say they have clear sustainability objectives, they are 1.5x more likely to report that sustainability progress has been made and will continue to be made.


Sarah Galloway, Global Sustainability Sector Co-lead at Russell Reynolds Associates, said:

“There is little doubt that translating strategic sustainability goals into individual actions is remarkably challenging. These are high-level issues for businesses and can feel very distant from what many leaders and employees are experiencing in their day-to-day work lives. Companies that can make this translation effectively are better at turning sustainable strategies into specific, measurable results.

“Without systems to hold executives accountable, organizations’ sustainability actions are at real risk of becoming token gestures, rather than catalysts of real change.”


Brand opportunity or commercial advantage?

The findings also identify that business leaders are still sceptical about the business benefits of sustainability transformation. Just 20% of UK business leaders see increased profits as a top-five benefit of sustainability action.

Instead, UK business leaders still view sustainability as a brand and employee retention exercise, with 69% identifying stronger brand reputation as a top benefit of sustainability action, and 51% citing talent retention. The research shows that when global senior leaders see sustainability as an opportunity to create value for their business and communities, they are 1.5x more likely to deeply integrate sustainability across decision-making.


Sarah Galloway adds:

“Sustainability transformation is one of the most challenging tasks a CEO faces today and it requires the ability to navigate complex trade-offs. The best leaders will be able to weather the short-term shocks and drive long-term investment to ensure they and their businesses don’t get left behind.

“Communicating this to shareholders, however, is one of the defining challenges facing the modern CEO. The commercial benefits of investment into net zero and circular business models may not be felt for many years, and this will continue to be a hard sell to many shareholders with short-term mindsets.” 


The latest analysis in the Russell Reynolds Associates’ Divides & Dividends report identifies four divides that leaders must address to succeed in implementing their businesses sustainability actions:

  • The Motivation Divide: Leaders are making the right noises around sustainability. Yet beneath the surface, they still see sustainability as a brand-building exercise, rather than a true lever for business performance.
  • The Leadership Divide: While CEOs are committed to action, they often lack the vision and courage that’s needed to take risks, navigate complex trade-offs—and ultimately pivot their organization toward a more sustainable future.
  • The Accountability Divide: In the rush to make visible commitments to sustainability and set ambitious goals, organizations are overlooking a critical step: ensuring their executive team is incentivized to make change happen—and stick.
  • The Mobilization Divide: Employees are ready (and eager) to play a leading role in transitioning their organizations toward a more sustainable future. Yet senior leaders are missing multiple opportunities to harness their collective potential.

UN Measuring Up 2.0 report (



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About Russell Reynolds Associates

Russell Reynolds Associates is a global leadership advisory firm. Our 500+ consultants in 47 offices work with public, private, and nonprofit organizations across all industries and regions. We help our clients build teams of transformational leaders who can meet today’s challenges and anticipate the digital, economic, sustainability, and political trends that are reshaping the global business environment. From helping boards with their structure, culture, and effectiveness to identifying, assessing and defining the best leadership for organizations, our teams bring their decades of expertise to help clients address their most complex leadership issues. We exist to improve the way the world is led.