Sustainability Transformation Takes Courage. We Need Brave Leaders to Step Up.

Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilityLeadershipSustainability OfficersDevelopment and Transition
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Clarke Murphy
October 22, 2021
3 min read
Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilityLeadershipSustainability OfficersDevelopment and Transition
We may have distinct business challenges and goals, but the rallying cry is that we all have the desire to unify to create a sustainable agenda.


Over the past few weeks, I have had the incredible opportunity to participate in and speak at the United Nation Global Compact’s Uniting Business Live event and the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. I was fortunate enough to hear some of the world’s most visionary thinkers share their insights on pressing issues facing our world—diversity, equity, governance and sustainability. The energy, enthusiasm and passion were palatable. Perhaps one of the most fulfilling aspects of the conversations was that we all learned a lot together, by sharing solutions, not just problems.  

As I reflect on these conversations, I am moved by the power of unity. We may have distinct business challenges and goals, but the rallying cry was undeniable, we all have the desire to unify business around issues that matter to create a sustainable agenda for the world. Here are some of my biggest takeaways. 

Change Leaders Will Drive Sustainability Transformation

I have said for some time that the transition to sustainable business starts at the top. What the world needs now is leaders who have the will to push companies forward to genuinely make a difference. Those who approach issues with a sustainable mindset, take ownership and hold teams accountable will move the ball forward the fastest—and make the biggest impact. 

That message is taking hold. In just one year, the uptick we have seen in our clients asking for us to include sustainable competencies in executive searches is remarkable. Just four years ago, only 4% of the roles we searched for required us to look at sustainable competences. That number is now 40%. The shift is happening. Investors are voting. Boards are listening. Employees are demanding action.   

When and How to Start

Our recent Divides and Dividends report shed light on the road ahead. We learned that just over 40% of C-suite executives said their organization has a sustainability strategy that has been acted on and clearly communicated. 

We know that one of the biggest challenges to getting started on sustainability is knowing where and how to jump in. My advice is to engage, experiment, innovate, push and listen. The untapped energy that will no doubt arise will be inspiring and create momentum. Do not go for homeruns; go for singles and doubles. Do not let the process be paralyzing. 

Some of the fastest progress we have seen occurs when incentives tied to sustainability are built into the reward and measurement system, and when employees have development opportunities around sustainability. Set audacious goals, rigorously drive action, focus on long term activation, and stay committed. Benchmark current performance and set realistic targets for improvement. 

But perhaps the biggest piece of advice I have is to be brave. Leaders must not be afraid to talk about planet, profit and people. These are some of the most urgent, deeply personal and significant issues of our time. Change will take courage. 

Culture and Collaboration

When sustainability is embedded wholistically into a company’s DNA, the wheels of change really start to turn. This is a way to pull everyone together, to create purpose, belief and to keep people invested in the journey. A culture that is grounded in mission-driven collaboration creates cohesion and fosters pride. 

Creating forums for consistent and meaningful engagement with stakeholders to open a candid feedback loop is key to instilling this sense of pride. This might take the form of employee townhalls, anonymous feedback mechanisms, investor engagement, roundtable discussions, focus groups or something else, but finding the right levers to pull will be critical for the future. 

There is an unprecedented opportunity and a duty to guide organizations and the wider community of stakeholders towards a vision of the future that is more hopeful, sustainable, equitable and resilient. 

Taking time to reflect affords us the important opportunity to regroup and refocus, but we must not look back for too long. We must focus on the road ahead and the best way to get there. I hope you will join me on this journey.