Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 25, 2022

Your Sustainability Journey: How to Find Energy Transformation Talent

As more and more companies commit to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and incorporating sustainability goals into their strategies, they are in desperate need of leadership to drive this change and give them a competitive advantage in the race to net zero. 

Sustainability leadership recruitment is experiencing a seller’s market. While the perceived status and prestige of working for a large corporate has lessened, the start-up and private equity community are attracting corporate talent with the promise of impact, purpose and life-changing money.
To navigate this new, competitive landscape, we offer our corporate clients the following observations from our executive search work:

  • The talent you want is already employed at a competitor. They are typically being approached every day via LinkedIn and are being robustly retained through higher-than-average base salaries and shares.  
  • The high potentials look good on paper, but some don’t yet have the leadership skills. Young (under 40) and inexperienced, they have not yet led large teams or learnt the leadership capabilities required to work at the level necessary to effect change.
  • They are purpose-driven and they believe their purpose will be diluted in a corporate environment. A strong sense of purpose is the underlying feature of this candidate pool. They are so motivated by solving the climate emergency that they will go only where they feel they are most needed. 
  • They are focusing on consolidating their impact. Viable candidates are often consultants, spreading themselves across advising start-ups, venture funds, strategy consultancies, policy institutes and sitting on panels and small advisory boards; they are typically working multiple jobs and burning out on very little pay. 
  • They find corporate companies inauthentic especially when it comes to hiring. They experience the recruitment processes of large companies as dry and off-putting, often having to run the gauntlet of HR executives and online questionnaires before actually meeting the people driving the strategy. 
What appeals to the next generation of sustainability leaders is the opportunity to make even more of an impact than the one they are already making in the position they are in. So what are they looking for?
Ultimately the best candidates are drawn to leadership. Which company and CEO do they feel has gotten their ESG approach right? Often, all they have to go on is what the CEOs and leadership teams are publicly saying and doing about their vision and purpose. A 2021 Financial Times Lex column calculated that most businesses will go through at least four CEOs before arriving at their first net zero target, so what companies are saying they are doing right now to reach net zero is really important to attract the right talent.
The more frequently CEOs and leadership teams attend interviews and informal conversations with the talent they want to attract and retain, the more likely their chance of getting the very best.
There are a few other approaches that we have seen attract talent:
  • Interacting in a non-hierarchical way. Even in a company where there is clear banding and paygrades, most interactions that internal or external talent have with business leaders need to be exploratory, equal and on an even-footing. This demonstrates the purpose-driven leadership that they are searching for. The more frequently CEOs and leadership teams attend interviews and informal conversations with the talent they want to attract and retain, the more likely their chance of getting the very best. IQ assessments and leadership style questionnaires should be saved until a later date as they appear too restrictive upfront. 
  • Interviewing to align on purpose rather than on a job specification. The most impactful conversations and interactions occur when a leader shares the company purpose and journey with vulnerability and in a way that resonates with the candidate. Sustainability executives don’t respond as well to more binary conversations that revolve around whether or not their experience fits the (often unrealistic) job description.
  • Having flexibility around regional vs. global experience. While net zero is a global movement, adoption of what enables it is regional. Clients often discount candidates with regional or specialist expertise who are more likely to understand customer adoption trends, for example; or ignore generalists who don’t understand the regulatory context of the region or technology the client is wishing to target. Both types of candidate are valuable and with the right learning agility can acquire more specialist or generalist skills if needed.
  • Openness to non-conflicting, board and advisory roles as a side-line. Executives at the forefront of the energy transition are in high demand. They are often given a binary option where opening one door for employment closes all others. More progressive employers are allowing their executives to take board and advisory opportunities. This not only enhances what executives can bring to their primary role, but increases their motivation due to the level of impact they are able to have in the space. It also means they burn out less. 
  • Utilising social media presence to show a human side. The generation that will solve the problem of climate change grew up with social media; they are looking for their leaders to be authentic and vulnerable and share both problems and solutions, wins and losses on these platforms. 

One of the biggest obstacles for companies moving to net zero is alignment of all its people around vision and purpose. Next generation leaders are attracted to start-up culture because of its agility and the opportunity to have immediate impact without the slowing effect of managerial and functional layers. Removing the layers, being human and lowering the “corporate façade” is the key to attract the best talent into corporates.