(Clark Young, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Clarke Murphy, CEO, Russell Reynolds

  • Few companies have embraced sustainability in their hiring processes.
  • Businesses should learn from the digital shift and hire in talent with new skills.
  • The way companies select leaders will have a lasting impact on our progress toward sustainability goals.

Sustainability has become a hot topic for governments, investors, employees and consumers. It is not surprising then that many people are wondering how the issue of sustainability influences the process of selecting senior executives and the appointment of corporate (supervisory) board members.


As a global leadership advisory and executive search firm, we are passionate about how sustainability influences organizations’ leadership talent frameworks and decision-making. To understand this, we analyzed 1,500 appointments that we have supported. What we found was surprising:

1) 15% of all role specifications referenced sustainability, but the vast majority described the company, not the role.

2) Only 3% of role specifications incorporated sustainability in the role definition.

3) Only 2% of documents included sustainability as a specific candidate requirement.

While organizations increasingly talk about the topic of sustainability – as shown by the company descriptions we saw – few appear to have embraced it as a critical leadership criterion. Outperforming sustainable companies will need to prioritize sustainable track records in executives to achieve the goals they are setting.

Creating a sustainable company is undoubtedly a matter of strategy, policy and process, but it is also one of leadership and people. Organizations are a collection of individuals working towards a common purpose, and corporate culture is a manifestation of their shared beliefs and behaviours.

Identifying employees and leaders across the organization who are motivated to drive sustainability and have the skills and experience to do so – and selecting leaders who feel this way too – is the surest path to long-term success.

Industrial companies lead the way on this front, albeit with very low numbers – sustainability appears in 7% of their job specifications, either as it relates to the role description or candidate requirements. And despite the success consumer companies have had focusing on ethical and sustainable products, they lag other industries on this measure, with only 3% of role or candidate descriptions mentioning sustainability.

Organizations that want to successfully embed sustainability into their business would benefit from studying the lessons learned from the drive to increase digital capabilities and mindset in the workforce. These issues have much in common: both manifest across industries, regions and organizational size, and both are topics that multiple stakeholders – investors, employees, consumers and regulators – care about greatly.

Image: Russell Reynolds Associates

Non-digitally native organizations began to respond to the market pressures of digitalization by hiring in talent with new skills and backgrounds. Some even added new executive roles like chief digital officer or chief data officer. As the issue moved from a potential disruptor to a core driver of competitive success, organizations began to embed digital acumen and experience into their leadership talent framework.

Leaders on boards and in the C-suite have a huge opportunity to make sustainability central to their organization’s culture. How companies develop and select the leaders of tomorrow will have a lasting impact on our collective progress toward sustainability goals. There are practical actions leaders can take today:

i) Audit your position on sustainability

Review your external communications and determine whether you have specific and measurable sustainability goals for each major business line. You do not need many goals, but the goals you do have should be sufficiently aspirational to drive real change. If you do not have sustainability goals or are not satisfied with the ones you have, engage with relevant business-line leaders to define and set them for 2020 and beyond.

ii) Determine your organization’s understanding of its sustainability goals

If you already have a set of sustainability goals, hold conversations with leaders at multiple levels in the organization to see if they know what they are and whether they truly understand what they entail. If understanding is limited, work with relevant business-line leaders to improve communication focusing on the “why” and the “how” of each goal.

iii) Review your leadership talent frameworks

Your organization’s leadership talent frameworks (e.g., competency model, leadership values, succession management process, objectives) ultimately signal to current and future leaders how they can succeed at your organization. Audit these frameworks to see if they embed sustainability and, if not, determine where and how it can be better entrenched.

What have you done that has had a positive impact on embedding sustainability in your organization? As always, actions speak louder than words.