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Sustainability is no longer just a nice-to-have. Consumers, employees and stakeholders are increasingly expecting organisations to lead the way when it comes to reducing emissions and reaching net zero, making it more important than ever for leaders to identify and develop talent to ensure their business's eco credentials are the foundation for growth and success.

While CEOs are acutely aware of the need to embed sustainability across the businesses they manage, it is also vital that they are able to identify and develop the talent needed to ensure their business’s eco credentials are the foundation for growth and success.

Research from the United Nations Global Compact and Russell Reynolds Associates discovered that sustainable business leaders typically fall into one of three overarching types: The Awoken, The Born Believers and The Convinced. All of the individuals in these groups have a strong commitment to sustainability, but their backgrounds and experiences differ, often dramatically.

As the name suggests, The Born Believers developed a passion for environmental and social issues at a young age, while The Convinced group more slowly gained an understanding of the importance of these issues as they climbed up the career ladder. The Awoken have experienced a pivotal moment in their life that made them shift focus to realize that there was more to business than bottom-line profits.

“With the majority being considered Awoken, this suggests that there is an emotional connection with the cause. Similar to Born Believers, these types of leaders will clearly be led by their experience and be able to visualize and communicate a company’s vision well,” explains Chris Hocknell, Director at London-based sustainability consultancy, Eight Associates. “Whereas a Convinced leader might be more guided by facts and rationality that focuses on educating the business with the latest statistics.”

The Born Believers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the executives interviewed in the report, 45 per cent were classified as Born Believers. It is clear that going through life with a sustainability mindset offers Born Believers a unique perspective on how to approach sustainability issues in their businesses.

For today’s CEOs with an ambition to recruit tomorrow’s savvy Born Believer executives who can ensure a brand’s sustainability practice is truly sustainable, a focus on diversity and broad geographic expertise is a must.

Compared to the control group of organisations with poor sustainability rankings, sustainability leaders were three times more likely to have worked in two or more continents. On top of this, leading executives who are not based in the Global South were also far more likely to have worked in these regions compared to the control group.

With sustainability issues requiring a multifaceted approach by leaders, Born Believers who have on-the-ground experience in different countries and workplace cultures are able to draw on this background to find novel fixes to longstanding problems.

The Convinced

Sustainable business leaders who are categorized as The Convinced are expected to play an essential role in supporting employees towards embracing a sustainable mindset. As these individuals have been on their own journey to become sustainability leaders, they are extremely well-suited to understand the most effective ways to create sustainable practices across their organizational culture.

“Sustainable leadership can be fostered and developed – you have the opportunity to begin to shape and influence the career journeys of your leaders to help them grow an understanding of the strategic importance of sustainability,” says the UN Compact report.

As the second largest cohort of sustainability leaders, with 43 per cent of survey respondents being placed in this category, The Convinced leaders can work with more junior executives who have displayed strong leadership potential to help develop their leadership skills.

No single Convinced skill set exists and current leaders need to broaden their idea of what a sustainability leader looks like if they are to find the talented leaders of tomorrow, according to Hocknell.

“One common mistake in this area is that leaders believe they need to only find people with technical expertise. This is important, but not as important as someone who can demonstrate resilience and adaptability,” he says.

The Awoken

Despite only 12 per cent of respondents falling into the category of The Awoken, these individuals are the most passionate type of sustainability leader. This type of executive has either directly experienced the results of climate change or had a turning point in their career where the impact of unsustainable practices has been clear to see.

Thanks to their experiences, Awoken leaders usually possess a strong personal commitment to tackling sustainability challenges, which can be contagious to other employees. Harnessing this powerful type of leadership can help ensure that when major business decisions are made, an unfiltered perspective on the sustainability aspects will be available.

“[A leader’s] sustainable mindset is the purpose-driven belief that business is not a commercial activity divorced from the wider societal and environmental context in which it operates, and that to be successful in the long-term, leaders must innovate and manage across commercial, societal and environmental outcomes,” explains the UN Compact report.

Due to the relatively small number of Awoken executives, CEO’s will need to establish a strategy to both identify and develop this talent going forward.

Competitive advantage

Finding the right balance of sustainability leaders is not an overnight process and will clearly take effort on the part of the current corporate leadership to build a team that takes sustainability seriously. But, for companies that do not explore sustainability by strengthening their teams in this area, they can expect to face challenges in both the near- and long-term.

“Companies will fall behind if they don’t strengthen their teams with sustainability experts. Whatever industry an organization is in, there are several changing factors that will harm a business’s growth and success if ignored,” Hocknell says.

Consumers are putting their money where their mouth is, with a Deloitte 2021 survey finding that 28 per cent of consumers have stopped buying certain brands or products due to ethical or sustainability related concerns about them.

Without leaders that are fully focused on championing sustainability, the chance that a damaging event related to poor sustainability practices happens is a clear concern for businesses.

Evolving regulatory requirements, too, are expected to drive many organizations to disclose more information about sustainability measures, leaving those with weak ethics in this area facing a public relations nightmare.

“If leaders are not proactive in learning and implementing any necessary requirements ahead of these being introduced, they will face greater difficulties further down the line,” Hocknell concludes.

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