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How to Assess Top Talent for Sustainability Leadership Skills

"Just because you have a position of power does not mean you are helping others achieve what they want in life. Just because you don't have a position of power does not mean you can't change things."

Submitted by: Shannon Houde

Posted: Oct 30, 2013 – 09:45 AM EST

Tags: sustainability, leadership, business skills, hr, management, talent, employee engagement, jobs, careers, cso, ceo, social entrepreneurs


By Shannon Houde, Walk of Life Consulting

Many HR departments and professionals are struggling with the requirements for sustainability leadership. Not only does the word 'sustainability' not really make sense to them, but when it is combined with leadership, they think they need a CSO. Sustainability practitioners and HR managers need new tricks to assess top talent in this space, especially as the hiring trends show that most roles are filled by internal candidates or through direct referrals. But what are they? And where are the people?

Perhaps these leaders are not only lurking in our company corridors. Perhaps they don’t even know that they are leaders, perhaps they don't want to lead. Perhaps they're just doing it: innovating (disruptively) and creating change at a larger scale by empowering others to join them on their journey to create value for the company, the environment and society.

Defining Leadership & Sustainability

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. – Bill Gates

Before HR or sustainability hiring managers can recognise these individuals, develop their talents or steal talent from a competitor, they must first define what leadership is, what sustainability is, and why it matters to their organization.

So what does a good leader look like, anyway? A classic business school read, Good to Great by Jim Collins, benchmarks companies that made the leap to great results and sustained them for 15 years. Each profiled company is analogous with a bus, driven by a leader, getting the right people on it first and then deciding where it business-person-green-mazeshould go. Sustainability leadership is no different to traditional leadership. It's just more challenging to be a leader in sustainability because the concepts are evolving, it's not mainstreamed yet and we don’t have universally standard ways of measuring data to prove the bottom line value it returns.

Often sustainability leadership refers to a company leading their sector or creating competitive advantage through innovation and pushing the envelope. However “the company” is only a leader because it is made up of leaders, innovators, culture changers, resilience seekers. So our focus here is on the talent, the people as leaders in this space.

In a recent article, Joel Makower notes that corporations are actually lagging behind other types of organizations in terms of leading on sustainability. He notes that “leaders in the scientific community, NGO leaders, leaders of multinational organizations — but, most of all, ‘social entrepreneurs’, who are now perceived as the sector advancing the sustainability agenda most” are leading the way. Social entrepreneurs are what I call ‘quiet leaders’. They are not the ones in the spotlight – they're the ones motivated by the social or environmental mission of their organization to solve a problem, pure and simple. This is real leadership, just without a fancy office or title, whereby people shift the paradigm with passion – not power.

Leadership Is Expressed, Not Held

The Director of Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria Business School and well-known sustainability thought leader, Jem Bendell, explains that both sustainability and leadership are essentially failed fields, in that "work within fields explicitly labelled 'sustainability' or 'leadership' hasn't been that significant for social change in the past years." He cites the dire conclusions of the recent IPPC report as evidence. “Leadership should be about helping people do difficult things together that they wouldn’t otherwise do," he says, "So sustainability leadership is a useful term when talking of helping society transition to a totally different way of life.”

But it is failing us, as we aren’t acting fast enough, together. A crucial part of the puzzle, he believes, is the understanding that leadership is expressed, not held. "Just because you have a position of power does not mean you are helping others achieve what they want in life. Just because you don’t have a position of power does not mean you can’t change things."

Dana Schou, a current student on the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), agrees that the function of leadership is to mobilize others: “Leadership is about giving people the permission to make decisions for themselves. It is about finding your niche and making a difference through inspiring others and building a community rather than being a leader at the top of a hierarchy." She notes that some of her fellow students keep saying that if the CEO or Board is not on board with sustainability, then forget it – but what happens to the managers, the champions within business-hierarchyan organization? She thinks “we need to inspire each other, the bottom needs to inspire the top and the top needs to inspire the bottom.” After all, we are in this together.

Innovate New Tools to Assess Talent

So how should a hiring manager respond to this complex picture? Most HR teams will use competency frameworks to assess talent for hiring and for development. Sustainability teams will know what technical skills are needed to complement the people, commercial and business skills to achieve their targets. But whose job is it to create good competency frameworks for sustainability teams, leaders and champions within an organization?

According to the Sustainability Leaders Awards, a sustainability leader must meet four key criteria:

  1. Involvement – To what extent was this person responsible for initiating or driving strategy/initiatives?
  2. Engagement – How has this person communicated the details and benefits of the strategy and programs to key stakeholders?
  3. Delivery – How far was this person responsible for delivering the initiative? Was it on time, on budget and to the right spec? What protocols were put in place to ensure this happened?
  4. Accountability – How far is this person responsible for the success of the project? Why?

All I can say is blah blah blah. If I hear these same key words one more time I may have to jump off a bridge. Is this really what leadership is all about? Well, somewhat, but these criteria seem more like managerial criteria not leadership ones. From my perspective, leadership in sustainability is all about:

  1. Pushing the boundaries of the norms with energy and drive, but knowing when to park the ego at the door
  2. Innovating and thinking way outside of the box in terms of what is possible far into the future
  3. Inspiring and empowering others to act so that everyone is on the journey together
  4. Understanding others’ perspectives so differences can be navigated smoothly
  5. Making informed decisions that are both ethical and that drive bottom line value, and then being accountable to them
  6. Being resilient enough to make mistakes and setbacks and turn them into opportunities to be challenged

HR and hiring managers can restart the leadership movement by empowering and enabling others to do what they are great at, to give them the flexibility to innovate (disruptively) and to challenge these up and coming leaders to inspire others. It's that simple, but it's not easy.

Look out for my next CSRwire Talkback post on on-boarding and developing future sustainability leaders for the nuts and bolts on how it's done.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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