Leadership + Culture = Impact

Do US business leaders have the skills they need to pivot their organizations to a more sustainable—and profitable—future?


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The job of a CEO has always been to lead. People follow people. But the shift to sustainable business demands an entirely different set of leadership skills than the past. 

Today's executives need the imagination to seek a different path, the courage to overcome challenges and the humility to bring others on their sustainability journey. Unfortunately, our research indicates that many leaders lack many of these capabilities.

We asked respondents to indicate whether they believe the senior leaders at their organization display each of 10 important attributes: Humility; Self-awareness; Authenticity; Empathy; Leading by Example; Inclusiveness; Purpose; Hopefulness; Humanity; and Transparency.

In the US, employees scored their leaders low on all 10 competencies. Only a quarter believe their most senior leaders demonstrate humility or self-awareness. And only a third believe senior leaders display empathy, humanity and inclusivity. This view is not only held by frontline employees—even C-suite executives do not see these attributes in their senior leaders.

C-suite perceptions of the greatest barriers that leaders face to embedding sustainability across business strategy (US) 

figure 9b

Without these skills many executives will struggle to get the traction they need to build a culture of sustainability that flows from the top of the organization to the frontline. Indeed, leaders are running into myriad challenges on their sustainability journeys. When asked about the top barriers they faced, 37% cited organizational complexity/bureaucracy, while a further 36% said a slow-changing company culture.

Which of the following attributes would you say the senior-most leaders in your organization display? (US)

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At the same time, our research indicated widespread DE&I challenges: around two-thirds of C-suite executives say the senior leaders at their organization show bias or favoritism to employees who are like them. Around the same proportion believe that gender and racial bias influence promotion decisions. Interestingly, C-suite leaders are more likely than employees to report these issues. 

Thinking about your employer, how much do you agree with the following statements? (US)

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Since the Black Lives Matter Movement, there has been no shortage of organizations committing to build diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces. Yet, as our research shows, the US still has a long way to go to root out and change patterns of behavior that still allow bias and favoritism to thrive. It is not enough to talk the talk on DE&I. Leaders also need to walk the walk.


Action Items

  • Take a candid view of your executive team’s and board’s perceptions of sustainability. Identify issues that may contribute to an unwillingness or inability to make it a core strategic objective (e.g. misaligned incentives, lack of resourcing or lack of capability).

  • Evaluate the capability of your executive team and board—do leaders have the soft skills needed to manage diverse stakeholders, bridge divides between groups and motivate employees to engage in a change journey?

  • Understand what elements of company culture and organizational operating habits may hinder change and innovation around sustainability (e.g. bureaucracy, deference to hierarchy or risk-aversion).

  • Push hard on DE&I, with a specific focus on defining concrete actions (not just goals) for improving diversity at senior levels within the organization.



Ready to get Started?

We look forward to connecting with you on sustainable leadership.