Organizations are increasingly looking for sustainable leaders. Are you?

Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilitySocial ImpactSustainability OfficersCEO SuccessionAssessment and Benchmarking
min Article
May 18, 2023
6 min
Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilitySocial ImpactSustainability OfficersCEO SuccessionAssessment and Benchmarking
Over half of RRA’s role specifications now refer to sustainability. Here’s how companies are embedding sustainability into their hiring decisions.
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Having the right leader—or leaders—at the helm can make the world of difference when it comes to meeting sustainability goals.

Effective sustainable leadership turns lofty aspirations into tangible achievements. It ensures the whole organization coalesces around a new vision and purpose, and is given the tools and resources they need to deliver against sustainability targets. Without it, good intentions become meaningless words.

The good news is that world-leading organizations are now awakening to this fact and are fast making sustainability a core requirement of incoming executives.

Since 2015, we’ve tracked how often the terms related to sustainability—such as ESG, circular economy and social value—appear in the position specifications that we create with clients, which set out the specific leadership skills and qualifications they are looking for in their next executive.

When we began tracking, only 9% of job specifications included sustainability-related terms. Fast forward to today, and the number now stands at 53%.

Here, we look at how organizations are infusing sustainability in their hiring decisions, changes RRA has made in how we advise clients in order to help them meet their sustainability objectives, and how you can find the executives you need to make progress on sustainability.


Small changes lead to big results

Position specifications typically contain three sections: a description of the company, a description of the role, and a description of the ideal candidate. When we first started tracking, almost all of the references to sustainability were in context of describing the company—colorful descriptions of the sustainability strategies and accomplishments that might attract senior talent who want to work for a sustainable employer.

It was clear our clients understood the value of sustainability in winning “the war for talent”, and many saw the even greater potential for sustainability to create value and reduce risk, ultimately improving the company’s bottom line. But this wasn’t translating to how they actually assessed and selected senior leaders—running the risk that their ambitions would fall flat without the necessary leadership to execute.

So in 2021, RRA set out to re-engineer how we advise clients in creating the position specification. Our default process now prompts clients to consider what types of skills and expertise an ideal candidate should possess in order to drive sustainability, just as we were already doing for such vital executive competencies as setting strategy, executing for results or leading teams. Clients can choose to exclude this sustainability section from their specifications, but our change made this an “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” decision.

As a result of this change, we saw a significant increase in how often clients were referencing sustainability in their position specifications. Importantly, most of this growth came from sections that describe the role requirements or ideal candidate. In other words, with minimal prompting from RRA, clients were now focusing on sustainability in the places where it really mattered.


Figure 1: Percentage of RRA position specifications including sustainability terms


Note: Specs often contain references in both the company and the role or candidate sections. As such the bars do no sum to the overall number.


This change exemplifies RRA delivering on its mission “to improve the way the world is led”. We saw clients struggling to deliver on their strategic and operational objectives related to sustainability, and changed the way we advise them in response.


How to find sustainable leaders

The systemic challenges the world faces today mean that sustainable leadership cannot be confined to a small minority; companies must instead cultivate sustainable leadership at all levels.

So, how can you find the executives you need to progress sustainability? What exactly should you be looking for? And how can you attract the right people to help accelerate your journey?

Here, we highlight four key steps that organizations can take to embed sustainability into hiring and succession practices, so you can bring your sustainability ambitions to fruition.

  1. Understand the mindsets and skill sets to look for. Sustainability must be incorporated into the role description for every senior executive position. Through our work with the United Nations Global Compact, we were able to set out the specific traits leaders need to deliver tangible sustainability results (see Figure 2 below). Ultimately, it all starts with the mindset that sees commercial, social and environmental outcomes as inextricably linked and positively correlated. This mindset must then be paired with a long-term vision, a multi-level systems view, the courage to disrupt business models, and a willingness to include a range of stakeholders when determining the company’s priorities.

  2. Assess candidates against the ‘what,’ ‘how,’ and ‘why.’ Your focus on sustainability should flow through your entire interview, assessment, and selection processes. In our experience, there are three key factors to consider when reviewing candidates: their track record (what have they accomplished?); their competencies (how have they accomplished this?); and their mindset (why were they driven to accomplish this?) Naturally, you’ll want to go beyond a candidate’s own self-assessment to also include carefully selected references and psychometric testing.

  3. Be honest about your sustainability journey. Finding the right candidate starts with being honest about the organization’s hiring needs. To attract the right people at the right time, be clear about where your organization is on its sustainability journey—whether it is nascent, evolving, or already well integrated—and how sustainability is embedded into the objectives of the company as a whole and each business unit or function. Be clear about how the successful candidate will contribute to achieving these objectives, and how they will be expected to embed sustainability KPIs into their daily work.

  4. Prime your internal pipelines. Don’t overlook the need to build your bench of next-generation sustainable leaders—those sitting a few rungs below the C-suite who will one day build on and accelerate the progress you’ve made today. When identifying your internal pipelines, it’s important to not get overly hung-up on sustainability experience. It’s more important to find people who have the right level of passion and commitment, and then invest in their growth and development, exposing them to the crucible experiences that will allow them to develop their sustainability muscles.


Figure 2: RRA’s Model of the Sustainable Leader

Sustainable Mindset Model





Kurt Harrison, co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Sustainability practice. He is based in New York.

Sarah Galloway co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Sustainability practice. She is based in London.

Emily Meneer leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Sustainability Knowledge teams. She is based in Portland.

Hans Reus is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Sustainability practice. He is based in Amsterdam.



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