CEO's and the corporate sustainability agenda

By Helen Adams
Stella Schmadl, Consultant for Development Practice at Odgers Berndtson, on how to identify CEOs who can drive forward the corporate sustainability agenda

Stella Schmadl, a Consultant in the Executive Assessment and Development Practice at Odgers Berndtson, has some thoughts on how boards can recruit the type of CEOs who will drive sustainability within their organisations.


‘You can’t do business on a dead planet’, is a mantra that more and more CEOs are beginning to believe in. It’s also becoming an increasingly important aspect of a company’s criteria for hiring new leaders. But how, as a board of directors, can you identify the types of leadership candidates that are going to drive forward your sustainability agenda?  


Leaders achieving sustainability

Up until a few years ago, that was a difficult question to answer. But with the global climate change movement gaining momentum, an explosion in responsible business, and more leaders willing to make positive change, a sustainability leader archetype has emerged.  

The first method of identifying these individuals is by looking at past success. The second, is by looking at leadership competencies.  

Many leaders express a belief in achieving sustainability and may have even acted upon that belief as an individual. But it’s the leaders who go beyond their personal sustainability goals, that have achieved success and made an impact at an organisation or ecosystem level that are the most likely to drive forward sustainability in your own company.  

What does that mean? At an organisation level, these leaders may have achieved a significant reduction in food waste, if they’re a food production company. Or, they may have converted a large portion of their vehicles to electric, if they’re a fleet operator. At an ecosystem level however, their horizons are much broader. They may have set sustainability benchmarks for all of their suppliers, refusing to work with those who fail to meet them. Or, they may have sought out partnerships with other organisations to provide more sustainable services and products.  


Diversity and inclusion 

It’s important to recognise that these initiatives don’t need to be limited to environmental sustainability. Achievements in things like inclusion and diversity and governance also demonstrate the motivation and ability to deliver positive change. For example, on an organisation level:

  • They may have introduced a mentoring scheme for underrepresented employees
  • Set and achieved leadership team diversity targets
  • Introduced unconscious bias training for hiring managers

On an ecosystem level, they may sponsor university scholarships or support charity campaigns.

These achievements can then be measured against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, one of the climate goals is to “integrate climate change measures into policies, strategies and planning”. A CEO of an investment firm that commits a large percentage of its investment portfolio to green funds may be considered to have met this goal on an ecosystem level. Likewise, the CEO of a mining company may have upgraded its technology and equipment to reduce accidents. This would help meet the goal on “protecting labour rights and promoting safe and secure working environments”, on an organisational level.   

The second method to identify leaders who are likely to have a sustainable impact is to look at leadership competencies. As research shows, by and large, they are results driven rather than process-oriented – valuing the need to achieve the best outcome over the route to that outcome. They are inclusive decision makers, recognising the benefits of giving others a voice. They also have a code of ethics, which is both authentic and plain to see by anyone working with them. Instead of being short-term results focused, they are visionary thinkers with long-term business goals. 

Above all else, they excel at making positive change happen and bringing their employees with them on that journey.


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