The dynamic forces of ecological, social and technological transformation are fundamentally changing the way businesses operate and succeed. Business leaders around the world must now wrestle with the real operational challenges and impact to supply and demand patterns created by environmental and social degradation. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to emphasize the urgent need to address these challenges.
The good news is that commercial leaders have never been more
united in their belief that change is necessary, and that progress will only be
achieved through the active participation of the private sector. In fact, one
recent study found that 88 percent of CEOs see a need for economic systems to
refocus on equitable growth.1 Despite that number, significant barriers to
change remain, with fewer than half of CEOs reporting that they have actually
integrated a sustainability-lens into their operations.2
Every year we help place thousands of leaders into C-suite and board positions, and we know that what organizations look for when they select new leaders has big consequences for organizational strategy and culture. We believe that the gap between what business leaders say they want to achieve when it comes to their sustainability agendas and what is actually being achieved is caused by the fact that sustainable leadership is rarely a selection requirement for senior leadership positions.
In a recent analysis of nearly 4000 executive placements, we found that only 4 percent included sustainability experience or mindset as a candidate requirement. It is clear that—despite genuine commitments towards sustainable practices— companies have not yet integrated these priorities into how they identify, assess and select their senior leaders. While roles such as chief sustainability officer are becoming more common, the scale of change required necessitates that senior leaders across the organization bring a sustainability lens to their decision-making, not just those with a dedicated remit. Without intentional effort to bring sustainability expertise into the C-suite, companies’ sustainability initiatives will remain stalled, no matter the authenticity of their commitments.
The selection decisions that organizations make about candidates are informed by two inputs: the position specification and the recruitment process itself. Companies must bring a sustainability lens to both in order to identify sustainable leaders who can help drive their sustainability agenda.
The position specification guides the search—it informs how the hiring team identifies prospective candidates and who is most likely to be attracted to the opportunity, and it acts as a framework guiding the assessment of candidates and subsequent selection. To embed sustainability into the position specifications for your most senior leaders, consider how it can be integrated in two key sections:
- The role description: Be clear about where the organization is on its sustainability journey—whether it is nascent, evolving or already well integrated—and how sustainability is embedded into the both the objectives of the company as a whole but also the business unit or function within which the role sits. Articulate how the successful candidate will contribute to achieving these objectives, and stipulate that they will be expected to identify and embed sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) into their specific area of responsibility.
- The candidate description: Explicitly incorporate candidate requirements related to sustainability as part of the ideal candidate description. These should relate to both the “sustainable mindset” that a candidate will bring to their work, as well as the experience required for the relevant sustainability goals at your organization. (For more information on the sustainability mindset and related traits please see our publication Leadership for the Decade of Action.)