Support from the CEO is important, but support alone is not enough. Sustainability
leaders must have the commensurate authority and resources. When asked what
CEOs could do to help them, they highlighted the need to integrate sustainability
into the core business strategy and spread accountability for sustainability beyond
3. Some parts of the business are used to working with sustainability — others are not:
The significant cultural and operational transformation that embedding sustainability entails means that sustainability leaders need to be interacting with the rest of
Progress is still very unequal. Sustainability leaders are working well and frequently
with communications teams, for example, but elsewhere, in operations and supply
chain, they are struggling to turn ambition into reality. This is exacerbated by a lack of
skill sets in the business to implement sustainability strategies.
4. The modern sustainability function requires a new and diverse set of skills: While
they don’t necessarily expect their teams to grow in size, sustainability leaders
expect their budgets to increase and are focused on securing the right skills to support their mandate.
Today, data analytics are essential to companies trying to understand and report on
complex sustainability issues. Intersectional and interdisciplinary thinking, as well as
change management, are also essential to handling the multiple facets of ESG in a
strategic manner, and to bringing that thinking into the business.
5. The sustainability function can guide the rest of the business: As sustainability
becomes embedded in a business, some might ask if the role of the CSO will disappear. Leaders we spoke to reject this idea; companies will need experts to provide
guidance on the development and delivery of strategy for a long time to come.
In the immediate term, sustainability leaders are focused on delivery: 70% of
sustainability leaders said that they were focused on developing more detailed implementation plans, and more than half are planning further investment in them over
this coming year.
Key insights for sustainability leaders
1. What sustainability means to business has changed: The issues addressed in sustainability strategies have broadened. At the same time, sustainability goes deeper
into the business, starting with engaged leaders and moving through different parts
of the organization.
Sustainability leaders can bring their insights and perspective to a much wider range
of business issues, from product development to risk, from diversity and inclusion to
wholesale business transformation. And they are increasingly having those conversations with the CEO and the board.
2. Performance measurement for sustainability leaders is different than for most other
leaders: Unsurprisingly, most sustainability functions’ performance is measured
according to the timely achievement of goals like decarbonization and other core
By contrast, bottom line contribution rarely forms part of the performance measurement of sustainability, despite their perceived mandate to transform the business.
Sustainability leaders select different measures to define good practice, such as being
radically transparent and adopting a systemic, intersectional approach to sustainability.
3. Understanding the core business is a crucial skill for modern sustainability leaders:
Driving change across the organization means leaders need to understand the realities of different roles and functions. General business experience can help, but getting
to know your own company deeply is even more valuable.
4. Every part of the business needs to upskill in support of sustainability: A fifth of
sustainability leaders said that the culture of their organization was not aligned with
sustainability objectives, while 41% cited a lack of skills in the organization to implement sustainability strategies as one of their main challenges.
At the same time, sustainability leaders recognize gaps in their own knowledge; 22%
said that there were aspects of climate change and other environmental challenges
that they don’t understand well enough to act on today. Eighteen percent said the
same about social and governance aspects.
To stand a chance of success, sustainability leaders need to work with other leaders
and teams across the business to build a deep understanding of the sustainability
strategy and its connection to other strategic priorities. Our results show that when
other leaders understand and are bought into sustainability, the CSO’s job is easier.
5. Moving from building strategies to delivering them requires a new approach: Seventy
percent of sustainability leaders said they were focused on developing more detailed
implementation plans to deliver their existing goals. Many feel the urgency of living
up to the name of the “decade of delivery.”
Delivering on goals will require sustainability leaders to assemble teams with a range
of skills and background — from subject matter expertise through to operational and
change management backgrounds. For sustainability leaders, now is the moment to
establish whether their teams and their relationships with the rest of the business are
in the right place for the job at hand.
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