Leading Corporate Sustainability
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Leading Corporate Sustainability

What are the leadership skills required in companies committed to sustainability?


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‘Corporate sustainability’ is an approach to business that takes into account every dimension of how an organization operates in the social, environmental, and economic spheres. It encourages companies to seek longevity through transparency, ethical values, and employee development and has become de rigueur for all progressive 21st Century organizations.

However, from strengthening policies on diversity to improving waste recycling rates, corporate sustainability is a business concept that covers a lot of ground. Consequently, it is not always well understood, is difficult to measure, and can be hard to pin down in terms of leadership.

In this extract from a recent article, Professor David Grayson, Director, The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management offers guidance on leading corporate responsibility:

So, what exactly are the corporate sustainability leadership competencies that are required in organisations that don’t want to die?

Let’s look at three separate ‘takes’ on the answer.

1. The business leaders’ perspective

An influential taskforce-based study, involving corporate leaders’ own views on the issue, was published in 2010 by Business in the Community, a business-led charity promoting responsible business and corporate responsibility.

Entitled Leadership Skills for a Sustainable Economy, it defined a number of corporate sustainability leadership attributes, including the ability to consistently work towards a longer term vision of how the organisation might contribute to a sustainable economy, together with an ability to inspire people—both inside and outside the organisation—to take action on corporate sustainability.

Also important, the taskforce argued, was the ability to empower those people within the organisation to make corporate sustainability business decisions, commercial awareness to identify the risks and opportunities that might lie behind those decisions, and sufficient knowledge about corporate sustainability to develop successful business strategies.

Just as valuable were the ability to innovate in terms of sustainable approaches, technologies, products and services; the ability to work collaboratively with different stakeholders, and the possession of effective and persuasive communication skills.

2. The survey-based perspective

Cranfield’s Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, visiting fellow Anita Hoffmann has published her own take on the issue, with the corporate responsibility coalition Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).

An experienced board level executive coach, she surveyed chief executives, chief human resource officers, company chairs, industry experts, NGOs, and chief sustainability officers around the world, probing their views on what constituted effective corporate sustainability leadership.

The answer? Six separate corporate sustainability leadership competencies: ethics and integrity; external awareness and appreciation of trends; visioning and strategy formulation; risk awareness, assessment and management; stakeholder engagement; and flexibility and adaptability to change.

3. The corporate sustainability expert’s perspective

Finally, for still another take on the issue, Canadian corporate sustainability expert Coro Strandberg’s 2015 report Sustainability Talent Management: The New Business Imperative distilled a decade of sustainability and management literature into just five interdependent competencies.

These, she decided, were systems thinking; external collaboration; social innovation; sustainability literacy; and active values.

. . .

Professor Grayson then offers his own perspective:

When it comes to corporate sustainability leadership competencies, I’d suggest these four qualities are amongst the critical building blocks:

  • The ability to contextualise; to understand sustainable development trends, and how and where your own organisation fits into the wider system - strategic systems thinking;
  • The surfacing of a personal purpose, together with authentic values;
  • A capacity to inspire and empower in a corporate sustainability context; and increasingly,
  • The ability to conceive, create, continuously improve and—where appropriate—exit collaborations with other businesses and interested parties.

Easy? Simple? Straightforward? Of course not. But then, corporate sustainability itself isn’t any of these things, either.

David Grayson CBE is Professor of Corporate Responsibility and Director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility. He is co-author with Jane Nelson from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government of the award-winning book 'Corporate Responsibility Coalitions: The Past, Present & Future of Alliances for Sustainable Capitalism'.

Thinking: brilliantly applied for the decade ahead

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