Divides and Dividends: The Say/Do Divide

When it comes to environmental sustainability, what CEOs say they do is markedly different to what employees see them do. This Say/Do Divide is significant.

When it comes to environmental sustainability, what CEOs say they do is markedly different to what employees see them do. This Say/Do Divide is significant. Despite C-suite leaders citing climate change and pollution as critical issues, next-generation leaders and employees are not always seeing meaningful action.

While 79% of C-suite executives say the environmental practices of their company are as good as industry best practices, only 54% of employees agree. And while 73% of C-suite leaders say that their organizations place the same importance on sustainability as they do on profits, just 48% of employees say the same. It is a similar story when it comes to perceived actions on climate change.

The Say/Do Divide has two possible dimensions: organizations are not taking sufficient action or they are not properly communicating their efforts. It is imperative for business leaders to determine which factors are at play at their organization. This includes a thorough analysis of the level of emphasis they place on sustainability—and whether these efforts are enough—and how well these actions are both communicated to and understood by employees.


Sustainability is and will continue to be a very important topic in attracting talent. There is no other way to attract other people, especially millennials who have sustainability on their minds. We need to be sensitive to this. You need to have practices and demonstrate that you are truly committed, otherwise, you will face frustration.

Digital Transformation Leader
Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, Sustainable Leadership in Professional Services: A Strategic Growth Engine


The most successful sustainable leaders have a strong personal belief that this is good for the people, the planet, and for the profit. The new leader understands that we have only one planet with limited resources, with urgent climate and biodiversity challenges, and that growth must be inclusive for a better life. Driven by the impacts on its business and the value chain, the leader has to embed sustainability in the company’s business strategy owned by business leaders and the front line.

Dr. Ilham Kadri
CEO and Chair of the Executive Committee, Solvay
Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, Leadership for the Decade of Action

Leading By Example

Gauging Employee Perspective at Neste

Recognizing that the shift towards a more sustainable operating model cannot succeed as a solely top-down effort, Peter Vanacker, CEO of renewable fuel producer Neste, has made a concerted effort to harness the perspectives of frontline employees in decision-making. Each quarter, employees are encouraged to take part in the "Way Forward" survey, a series of 10 questions that aim to gauge employee sentiment towards various aspects of the operating culture, including whether the company is spending enough time focused on its purpose. Roughly 80% to 90% of Neste's 5,000+ employees complete the survey each quarter. This provides Vanacker and his leadership with important insights on the priorities and concerns of one of its most important stakeholder groups. This has been critical in driving forward their business transformation towards renewables.

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, Leadership for the Decade of Action

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Employees want to work for companies with a clear purpose—they look for leaders who not only take a stand but match what they say they will do with meaningful, measurable, and consistent actions. Our research showed skepticism in senior executives’ abilities to do this. Just 37% of C-suite executives say the senior leaders of their own organization lead by example. Next-generation leaders who directly report to and observe the C-suite are even less enthused (29%) [Figure 11]. The crux of the matter is that trust in leaders depends on executives matching what they say with what they do; low scores on their ability to lead by example means many executives will struggle to close the Say/Do Divide.



Action Items

  • Audit your Say-Do Divide and drill into the specific areas where employees and leaders are unconvinced that real action is being taken versus areas where improved communication could resolve skepticism. 
  • Identify your top team’s sustainable leadership credentials and ability to lead by example. Ensure executives work in lockstep towards your sustainability vision.   
  • Make employee engagement and involvement a key component of how you set or refine your sustainability strategy and execute upon it.

About the Study

The business case for sustainability is undeniable. Leaders who bridge the divides that threaten our global societies will yield significant triple-line dividends.

In a major global survey of C-suite executives, next-gen leaders, and employees, we reveal how leaders can grasp this opportunity:

  • What are the environmental, social, and economic divides that leaders should solve?
  • How ready are leaders to advance the sustainability agenda?
  • What actions should leaders take to deliver lasting value for people, planet, and profit.

The study was conducted with 9,500 employees and next-generation leaders in 11 growth and mature markets from April 16 to May 12, 2021.


Divides and Dividends

Access an unprecedented sustainable leadership study with 9,500 respondents in 11 countries and learn what actions leaders should take to deliver lasting value for people, planet and profit.