Sustainability

Leadership for the Decade of Action

A United Nations Global Compact-Russell Reynolds Associates study on the characteristics of sustainable business leaders



As we began the UN Decade of Action and approached the 20th anniversary of the UN Global Compact, it was with an acute awareness that we were not on track to meet the 2030 deadline to transform our world. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, further exposing fundamental weaknesses in our global system and the fragile nature of our progress to date. As we set out to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time for all companies to raise their ambition for people, planet and prosperity. For transformation at the level and scale needed, organizations need to focus on making sustainability sustainable. This is more than a matter of strategy, policy and process — it is fundamentally about leadership and people.

 For this reason, the United Nations Global Compact and Russell Reynolds Associates set out on a collaboration to answer an important question: how can organizations make sustainability core to the DNA of their leadership teams?  To answer this we first analyzed over 4,000 executive and non-executive role specifications to understand if and how sustainability presents as a role requirement. We then conducted in-depth interviews with, and did background analysis on, a group of 55 sustainability pioneers — Chief Executive Officers (CEO) and board members from across continents and industries with a notable track record of effectively integrating sustainability into business strategy.

We identified three main lessons:

  1. Companies are not yet prioritizing sustainability in what they look for in senior leaders: Despite changing stakeholder perceptions and highly visible commitments to become more sustainable, companies are not yet embedding sustainability into their leadership frameworks – in only 4% of role specifications was sustainability experience or mindset a requirement. We believe this explains the disconnect between the increasingly accepted view that sustainability is critical to business success, and the reality that few businesses are living up to their commitments.
  2. The pool of sustainable talent is larger than it might seem:  It is tempting to assume that all sustainable leaders were born that way, with an innate passion for the environment or social issues. And while it is true that many of the sustainable leaders we studied fit this description, an even larger number either came to an understanding of the strategic importance of sustainability as they grew in their careers, or had a pivotal moment of realization, prompted by some major event or experience, that there was more to business than just profit maximization. This is important because it means that sustainable leadership can be fostered and developed; companies are not dependent on finding innately passionate leaders, but rather can develop this understanding among their senior executives.
  3. There are a set of differentiating leadership attributes that fuel sustainable leaders’ success: They combine a sustainable mindset with four critical capabilities: 
  • Multi-level systems thinking—They incorporate the interplay of business, societal and environmental systems and drive decisions that turn sustainability into a competitive advantage. 
  • Stakeholder influence—They do not seek to manage stakeholders, rather they actively include them in defining and actioning decisions. 
  • Disruptive innovation—They possess the courage to challenge traditional approaches and cut through bureaucracy to drive the disruptive innovation needed to do away with the profitability- sustainability trade-off. 
  • Long-term activation—They do not simply have an orientation towards the long term, they set bold sustainability goals and rigorously drive concerted action in their pursuit. 

 The analysis of these leaders provides unique insight into the characteristics and actions needed to be a sustainable leader and how that can help us identify, enable and develop the sustainable leaders of tomorrow.

Download our report to find out how you too can make sustainable leadership core to your organization.

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We help CEOs and boards steer their organizations toward a more sustainable—and profitable—future.
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Leadership for the Decade of Action