Sustainability Leadership – closing the ‘say/do’ gap

December 13, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
A close up of some hands tending to a plant bathed in sunlight

A recent and significant survey by our colleagues at Change Leadership & Partners has shown that sustainability is most definitely a critical part of the leadership agenda.

The results clearly show that there is a far greater interest and awareness among leaders of the need for action on sustainable business and the principles of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) than was the case just a few years ago. Good news, right? You just know there’s a ‘but’ coming, don’t you…

Some of the more positive results from the survey are that:

92% of respondents believe that integrating sustainability practices is crucialfor their organization’s future success

While in another question:

78% emphasize the importance of leaders comprehending ESG, sustainability practices, and Sustainability Leadership”.

However -and here’s the ‘but’ –

only “6% of respondents’ organizations have an established sustainability programme or initiatives in place

So why the big gap between what we say is important and what we actually do about it?

Well, that ‘say/do gap’ is actually a very common occurrence in business – and especially for anything that is likely to cost money or reduce profits.

While leaders may know that something is very important and that we should be focusing on improving it, the great majority of the focus and effort in most commercial organizations’ is on survival, delivering financial results and meeting the needs of the most influential stakeholders. Anything else is likely to be well down the pecking order.

The practical result is that most organizations place priority on, and therefore put significant efforts into, issues such as:

        • Customer satisfaction (because it very clearly relates to revenue and repeat business)
        • Productivity (because it improves output and increases profitability)
        • Regulatory compliance (because of risk and the existential threat)
        • Business development (because it creates sales and profits)

But these organizations typically commit far less energy to other priorities that may be of even greater significance in the medium term, such as:

        • Employee satisfaction (because it might cost money and there are always other people)
        • Talent retention (for similar reasons to the above)
        • Innovation (because it’s difficult and we prefer the tried & tested)

and, getting back to the main issue:

        • Sustainability (because it’s complicated, we don’t get it and no-one is telling us to do it)

So where does that leave us?

The easiest places to start are probably with these three actions:

        1. Training for leaders in ESG/Sustainability Leadership
        2. An audit of the organization’s current position and skills in sustainability
        3. A better understanding of how much the issues matter to our customers and the marketplace

Sustainability is an issue that few will say is unimportant. We all care about the planet and the environment don’t we – and yet data from this and other research shows us that a large proportion of the damage to the planet is caused by organizations. This research by CLP also shows us that top leaders are ostensibly concerned about it and believe it should be addressed.

Having myself spent more than a decade working with the UK Government-backed Engagement Task Force, I know only too well that the commitment of an organization’s leaders to fundamentally important issues like employee engagement or sustainability leadership typically lasts right up to the moment when it requires them to spend money on it or to change their normal business practice and leadership approach.

Well, if there’s one thing that even the most target-driven, profit focused CEO or Board can’t do without, it’s a planet on which to do business.

Very few people would deny that the future of our planet is a very significant issue indeed, or that it is under threat from the actions of us all. A piece I was reading this very morning talks of the establishment of a new epoch – the Anthropocene – where future archaeologists will be able to identify the exact point at which the dramatic environmental impact of our era began. Estimates suggest that the impact of this damage will be visible for at least 50,000 years.

There are two main things that will drive sustainability leadership in the short term:

        • Mandatory Regulation – with significant sanctions attached

        • Customer demand – with contracts/relationships dependant on it

But there is a third option as well:

        • Leaders standing up – doing it for the greater good, the future and their children

A man can dream.

We’re here to help if you want to take action.

Click here to view the full Sustainability Leadership report.

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