Looking to Catapult to the C-Suite? Get to Grips with Sustainability

Sustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceSustainabilitySustainability OfficersDevelopment and TransitionBoard Effectiveness
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Clarke Murphy
February 03, 2023
6 min read
Sustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceSustainabilitySustainability OfficersDevelopment and TransitionBoard Effectiveness
Executive Summary
To accelerate your career in today’s world, understanding what it means to be a sustainable leader is key.
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Sustainability is now one of the most pressing issues on the CEO agenda today. Employees, investors, customers, and communities are looking for business leaders to pivot their organizations to a more sustainable future.

There’s just one problem: Many are struggling to know where and how to start.

The truth is, sustainability transformation is hard. And there is no pre-existing playbook to fall back on. At business school, they learned to deliver results for shareholders, not stakeholders. And it doesn’t matter how much experience they have, many are just beginning their sustainability education. It is almost as though they are associates again.

This opens a big opportunity for those starting their careers today. We know that the most-enlightened CEOs are looking to their next-generation leaders for answers. For example, Dolf van der Brink, Heineken’s CEO and Chairman, actively looks for rising stars who have strong sustainability credentials and catapults them into positions of leadership and responsibility.

Soon after he became CEO, Blanca Brambila Perez secured the role of Global Head of Circularity at the company’s Amsterdam headquarters. She had previously been Head of Sustainability for Heineken Mexico, which includes the brewer’s largest and most sustainable production facility.

In part due to Blanca’s advocacy, Heineken Mexico became the model for water care globally, participating in international forums that share good practices and knowledge with all the other Heineken breweries. Under Blanca’s guidance, the Mexican operations reduced their water footprint as much as possible, ultimately offsetting more than 2.4 million cubic meters of water in the Monterrey, Toluca, Guadalajara, and Tecate plants. Beyond saving water, Heineken Mexico contributed to local ecosystems by improving the quality of residual water returned to the environment, which balanced and restored habitats to their original state. The success of these initiatives caught Dolf’s eye.

Under Dolf’s leadership, Heineken also takes part in the international Nudge Global Challenge, an annual sustainability initiative open to employees under the age of 30. Dolf sees it as a chance to not only identify the next generation of sustainable leaders but also to gain insights on potential sustainability practices and innovations from executive and management-track employees with direct experience at all levels of the supply chain.

So, even if you’re at the beginning of your career, know that by grasping the sustainability agenda, you will become a powerful force for change who inspires your CEO and other senior executives to do better while accelerating your career and catapulting yourself into leadership positions.


What does it take to seize the sustainability opportunity?

Recently, Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with the United Nations Global Compact to develop a sustainable leadership model that sets out the specific skills you’ll need to move the dial on sustainability.

It starts with having the right mindset. The world’s most successful sustainable leaders all have one thing in common: they share a deep-seated belief that the role of business is not just to make money, but to also be a force for good in the world. Keeping this idea front of mind is what will inspire (and motivate) you to see opportunities to do business differently.

Beyond this, there are four key capabilities:

1. Multi-level systems thinking

Sustainability is a complex space. But sustainable leaders can see how the entire environmental, societal, and business ecosystem fits together and navigate a path forward. It’s all about raising your hand for experiences that will stretch your thinking. For example, our research shows that many leaders who have gone on to make huge strides in sustainability have international experience and/or cross-functional experience, which gave them a broader perspective on their business and industry. (Notably, many had experience in supply chain and operations, where they could see the direct impact of their sustainability strategies.)


2. Disruptive innovation

Sustainable leaders look for opportunities to disrupt the status quo and commit to bold action without necessarily knowing the exact solution—or how they will get there. They lead with the determination that whatever piece of the puzzle is missing, they will find it. And they recognize that the greater risk is taking no action at all. But remember that this is not about recklessness. To take calculated risks, you need to first zoom in to investigate issues in detail (analyze, research, and seek out the best available science) and then zoom out, so you never lose your passion for the big picture. Get good data through experiments and pilots, then act. Don’t spend months or years trying to prove your solution is perfect before sharing your ideas.


3. Stakeholder inclusion

Sustainability is too big a problem for any one person or entity to solve. The best sustainable leaders recognize that they must work with others to find the answers, from other employees and departments to customers, suppliers, shareholders—and even competitors. Every conversation you have internally and externally with these stakeholders is an opportunity to gain invaluable new insights. Beyond this, joining industry forums can help you understand the movers and shakers in the sustainability space, discover new perspectives on problems, and spark ideas for collaboration. But most of all, adopt a cooperative mindset (become a collaborator in chief), recognizing that only by working with others will you be able to turn your fledgling ideas into workable solutions—and secure the buy-in you need if you’re to deliver them.


4. Long-term activation

Sustainability is a marathon, not a sprint, and the winners are those who think not just five to 10 years ahead, but generations ahead. This is about having the vision, courage, and grit to push ahead with your plans in the face of resistance or setbacks. So, when thinking about sustainability, don’t just focus on the tactical low-hanging fruit. Think about how your organization can make a difference for the long haul—and push your senior managers to do the same. Develop your resilience. Not everyone will agree with your vision (nor should they). But you need to learn when to stay the course, and when to tweak, bend, or yield.


The good news is that you don’t need to be a born believer in sustainability to develop these skills. Our research shows that only 45% of sustainable leaders had a passion for environmental or social issues from an early age. Instead, many were convinced (43%) about the strategic importance of sustainability as they grew in their careers. (The remaining 12% were awoken to sustainability by a pivotal moment of realization, prompted by a major event or experience.)

So, next time your company is discussing sustainability, raise your hand to get involved. And, if no one is talking about it, grab the chance to put it on the radar of your management teams. It might be the single biggest thing you can do for your career.