Back to School: Moving Beyond Sustainability Rhetoric

Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipSustainability Officers
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Clarke Murphy
July 18, 2023
5 min read
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipSustainability Officers
Executive Summary
Too many companies are getting caught “greenwashing.” It’s time to turn talking into action.
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Every year, we see large companies issue statements expressing their desire for sustainability. It’s easy to do, but turning words into effective action requires a distinct set of leadership skills that often come as a stretch or even an afterthought to many top executives.

I’ve spent a good deal of time exploring how CEOs and other leaders can truly move the dial on sustainability—through my day job at Russell Reynolds Associates, for my recently published book, Sustainable Leadership, and in conversations with top executives for the Redefiners podcast.

I’ve also had the privilege of sharing my experiences with top CEOs and other senior leaders from across the world at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management Executive Education.

Together with MIT, RRA has co-developed an immersive sustainable leadership program that’s designed to help leaders develop the specific skills they need to pivot their organizations to a more sustainable future. MIT methodologies paired with real-world case studies from RRA interviews and client work is a powerful learning tool.

Here’s just some of what I’ve shared with the participants:


1. Sometimes, sustainable leadership comes from a flash of inspiration

Many sustainable leaders have an “aha” moment that leads to a different mindset. Svein Tore Holsether, President and CEO of Yara International, heard his call to action on the streets of Paris. During a Redefiners episode, he described the profound impact of protesters outside the 2015 Paris Climate Conference on him and his company.

“Seeing the youth engagement, the demonstrations in front of the buildings, the fact that business was getting involved made a huge impression on me,” he told me. “I understood that everything I had thought about our strategy would change…I made the decision then that we need to think completely differently.” Svein’s global fertilizer company had always considered feeding the world its core purpose. His experience in Paris convinced him that Yara had to embed sustainability within that purpose.

And when sustainable leaders have experienced these redefining moments, they are not afraid to completely transform their business through sustainability. As Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, who I interviewed for my book, told me: “Sustainability is not an adjunct; it’s not another initiative; it’s not something we keep track of on the side. Rather, it’s completely integrated with the company’s overall strategy, which is to be a leader in the clean energy transition.” And she’s done just that. As of 2021, the company had reduced CO2 emissions by 44%, sulfur dioxide emissions by 98%, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 83%.


2. Sustainable leaders doggedly seek more insights

Nearly all effective sustainable leaders start by educating themselves. The problems facing our planet are complex and ever-changing, and new solutions are emerging rapidly. In addition to examining sustainability efforts within his sector, Svein gathered insights from leaders in other sectors, including Unilever CEO Paul Polman. He joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Economic Forum’s Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, and other sustainability-focused business groups.

As he put it, “You shouldn’t be ashamed to copy from others.”

I also had a fascinating conversation for Redefiners with Feike Sijbesma, CEO Emeritus of Royal DSM, who transformed the organization from bulk chemicals to being a leader in nutrition, health, and bio-sciences (not your average transformation!). He was clear that “Leadership starts with insight: insight into yourself, insight in the people you work with, and insight in the world you operate in … And you only get that insight when you listen, when you read, when you observe when you travel.” As he told me, “The sad thing is when people develop into leaders, they go on stage, teaching and telling stories, instead of listening.”


3. Sustainable leaders are bold, but not reckless

A well-balanced risk appetite is a vital component of sustainable leadership. Svein demonstrated this trait when Yara invested $15 million in the world’s first emission-free cargo ship. The Yara Birkeland will transport the company’s products and is expected to replace the equivalent of 40,000 diesel truck trips and the associated emissions.

“I’d rather be fired for taking too much of a risk and making a mistake than not acting soon enough,” Svein told me when I interviewed him for my book.

Likewise, Søren Skou, CEO of AP Moller-Maersk, invested $2bn in 12 containerships but didn’t know where he would find the green methanol fuel to power them. Of course, he has now worked with others to find a solution, and as he told me, “All those problems at the start that we thought were so huge [and] we had no idea how to overcome turned out not to be so insurmountable.”


4. Sustainable leaders inspire and guide

Organizations can’t achieve their sustainability commitments through edicts from management. Success requires the active involvement of people within the organization who make change happen. And that requires leaders to create a culture of innovation and experimentation.

One of the most fascinating insights from my recent conversation with Feike was that he regularly held funerals for failed innovations. One was held after the company had spent millions developing a new glass product for picture frames. The idea was simple: protons in the glass would let more light through, creating a crisper picture. But because the product was more expensive, the only market was museums.

At the funeral, someone was asking Feike why the innovation failed. The man explained: “If you apply those coatings on solar panels, do all the photons then go through and do you get a higher yield?”

Feike stopped the funeral there and then, started testing it, and built a great business out of an anti-reflective coating for solar panels. As Feike told me: “Creating a different culture, a different setting to create serendipity for innovation was critical. There are numerous examples of these innovations in the company and we benefited from them.”

So, before putting together a corporate statement, think about how you can bridge the gap and turn poetic words into meaningful action. That is the definition of truly sustainable leadership.