Divides and Dividends UK

Sustainability is set to become the driving force of business in the next decade—and beyond


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We are on the cusp of a new era of business. There is a growing expectation that private companies must exist for public good. It is no longer enough for business leaders to focus solely on quarterly results and shareholder returns. They must also help fix the shared challenges that divide our societies and deliver lasting value for people and planet.

Sustainability is set to become the driving force of business in the next decade—and beyond. There is clear evidence that companies that grasp the sustainability agenda with both hands will outperform those that don’t. Yet despite increasing public pressure and widespread acknowledgment of the financial, social and environmental value that sustainable business creates, a significant gap remains between what leaders say they want to achieve and what they are accomplishing.

Against this backdrop, Russell Reynolds Associates set out to understand the real state of sustainability within organizations across 11 countries. By surveying three distinct groups—C-suite executives, next-generation leaders and employees—we were able to understand what a cross section of the global workforce thinks about the maturity of their organization’s sustainability strategy and the ability of their leaders to advance the sustainability agenda.

In the UK, four key themes emerged.

  01. Brand Management versus Value Creation

UK organizations are yet to make sustainability a central thread of business strategy. Most C-suite leaders say their sustainability efforts are driven by brand-management concerns, rather than motivated by value creation, impact reduction or risk avoidance. Those that see sustainability as a critical lever for value creation, not a reputational threat to manage, will be best placed to accelerate their sustainability journey.

View survey results and data

  02. Say/Do Divide

Our research shows a significant gap between what executives say they are doing on environmental sustainability and what employees see them doing. While 75% of UK C-suite leaders say their organization is doing all it can to reduce its impact on climate change, only 51% of employees agree. As organizations face growing pressure to sign up to net-zero targets, C-suite leaders must be careful to back up public commitments with action.

View survey results and data

  03. Next-Generation Leaders at the Vanguard

UK organizations face a potential sustainable-leadership pipeline problem. Only 29% of next-generation leaders have taken on three or more job responsibilities related to sustainability in the last two years, behind the global average (40%). Unless action is taken, these future executives will ascend the C-suite with significantly less experience in managing sustainability strategies than their global peers.

View survey results and data

  04. Leadership + Culture = Impact

Achieving authentic and lasting progress on sustainability is first and foremost a matter of leadership. Yet there is a prevailing view that UK executives lack many of the skills needed to drive change. At the same time, a lack of progress on DE&I will hamper efforts to build an organization-wide culture of sustainability. It is time to push hard to deliver against meaningful, measurable and consistent DE&I goals.

View survey results and data

Ultimately, transitioning from a business model that’s focused solely on shareholder returns to one that puts purpose front and center is incredibly challenging. Change is never easy. And the shift towards sustainable business is one of the biggest transitions an organization must make. Yet we know that it can be done.

Making the transition depends on solely on bold and courageous leadership. Every business leader now faces a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink strategies, business models and operations to pivot their business towards a more sustainable—and profitable—future.

This study is vital to achieving that.

Sarah Galloway 
Sustainability Co-Head, Russell Reynolds Associates

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 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. In the UK, we surveyed 677 employees and next-generation leaders and 96 C-suite leaders.





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