Developing Sustainability-Focused Leaders

In a new report, Clarke Murphy of Russell Reynolds Associates addresses the challenges of helping companies meet the world’s ever-increasing sustainability needs and offers four key capabilities found in leaders to bring about transformation.

February 22, 2023 – Sustainability is one of the most pressing issues on the CEO agenda today. Employees, investors, customers, and communities are looking for business leaders to pivot their organizations to a more sustainable future. Yet, as Clarke Murphy, veteran leadership advisor at Russell Reynolds Associates, outlines in his new book: there’s just one problem: Many are struggling to know where and how to start. “The truth is, sustainability transformation is hard,” Mr. Murphy said. “And there is no pre-existing playbook to fall back on. At business school, leaders learned to deliver results for shareholders, not stakeholders. And it doesn’t matter how much experience they have, many are just beginning their sustainability education. It is almost as though they are associates again.”

This opens a big opportunity for those starting their careers today, according to Mr. Murphy. The most-enlightened CEOs, he says, are looking to their next-generation leaders for answers. 

“So, even if you’re at the beginning of your career, know that by grasping the sustainability agenda, you will become a powerful force for change who inspires your CEO and other senior executives to do better while accelerating your career and catapulting yourself into leadership positions,” said Mr. Murphy.

What does it take to seize the sustainability opportunity?

Recently, Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with the United Nations Global Compact to develop a sustainable leadership model that sets out the specific skills you’ll need to move the dial on sustainability.

“It starts with having the right mindset,” Mr. Murphy said. “The world’s most successful sustainable leaders all have one thing in common: They share a deep-seated belief that the role of business is not just to make money, but to also be a force for good in the world. Keeping this idea front of mind is what will inspire (and motivate) you to see opportunities to do business differently.”

Related: Retaining Your Employees During the Great Resignation

Beyond this, Mr. Murphy points to four key capabilities:

1. Multi-level systems thinking

Sustainability is a complex space. But sustainable leaders can see how the entire environmental, societal, and business ecosystem fits together and navigate a path forward. It’s all about raising your hand for experiences that will stretch your thinking. For example, the firm’s research shows that many leaders who have gone on to make huge strides in sustainability have international experience and/or cross-functional experience, which gave them a broader perspective on their business and industry. (Notably, many had experience in supply chain and operations, where they could see the direct impact of their sustainability strategies.)

Clarke Murphy leverages 30 years of experience in the executive recruiting industry to advise on critical leadership mandates across sectors – including Fortune 100 board searches and CEO successions. Based in New York, he has provided leadership advisory services to corporations such as Duke Energy, Deutsche Bank and Siemens, as well as private equity firms including the Carlyle Group. Since joining the firm in 1988, Mr. Murphy has held several senior level roles at the firm, working both in Europe and the U.S. Mr. Murphy was the CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates from 2011-2021, where he led the firm through unprecedented growth.

2. Disruptive innovation

Sustainable leaders look for opportunities to disrupt the status quo and commit to bold action without necessarily knowing the exact solution—or how they will get there, according to Mr. Murphy. “They lead with the determination that whatever piece of the puzzle is missing, they will find it,” he said. “And they recognize that the greater risk is taking no action at all. But remember that this is not about recklessness. To take calculated risks, you need to first zoom in to investigate issues in detail (analyze, research, and seek out the best available science) and then zoom out, so you never lose your passion for the big picture. Get good data through experiments and pilots, then act. Don’t spend months or years trying to prove your solution is perfect before sharing your ideas.” 

3. Stakeholder inclusion

Sustainability is too big a problem for any one person or entity to solve, Mr. Murphy explains that the best sustainable leaders recognize that they must work with others to find the answers, from other employees and departments to customers, suppliers, shareholders—and even competitors. “Every conversation you have internally and externally with these stakeholders is an opportunity to gain invaluable new insights,” Mr. Murphy said. “Beyond this, joining industry forums can help you understand the movers and shakers in the sustainability space, discover new perspectives on problems, and spark ideas for collaboration. But most of all, adopt a cooperative mindset (become a collaborator in chief), recognizing that only by working with others will you be able to turn your fledgling ideas into workable solutions—and secure the buy-in you need if you’re to deliver them.”

4. Long-term activation

Sustainability is a marathon, not a sprint, and the winners are those who think not just five to 10 years ahead, but generations ahead, according to Mr. Murphy. “This is about having the vision, courage, and grit to push ahead with your plans in the face of resistance or setbacks,” he said. “So, when thinking about sustainability, don’t just focus on the tactical low-hanging fruit. Think about how your organization can make a difference for the long haul—and push your senior managers to do the same. Develop your resilience. Not everyone will agree with your vision (nor should they). But you need to learn when to stay the course, and when to tweak, bend, or yield.”

The good news, says the report, is that you don’t need to be a born believer in sustainability to develop these skills. Russell Reynolds research shows that only 45 percent of sustainable leaders had a passion for environmental or social issues from an early age. Instead, many were convinced (43 percent) about the strategic importance of sustainability as they grew in their careers. (The remaining 12 percent were awoken to sustainability by a pivotal moment of realization, prompted by a major event or experience.)

“So, next time your company is discussing sustainability, raise your hand to get involved,” said Mr. Murphy. “And, if no one is talking about it, grab the chance to put it on the radar of your management teams. It might be the single biggest thing you can do for your career.”

Related: Hiring Top Talent in Unprecedented Times

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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