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What It Takes to Be a Sustainability Leader Today

In Conversation with Benet Northcote, Former Chief Policy Officer for GreenPeace UK and Former Director of Corporate Responsibility at the John Lewis Partnership

Sustainability is dominating the conversation in 2020. It was center stage at Davos this year, with young leaders pushing for a planet-first agenda, investors continuing to buzz about impact investing, and CEOs touting ideas to reform capitalism. Then it came into the conversation again during the global COVID-19 pandemic, with companies making promises to consider and care for all stakeholders. But for all of the urgency around economic, social, and governance issues, actions around the globe are uneven and slow moving. Before the coronavirus struck, I spoke with Benet Northcote, former GreenPeace UK Chief Policy Officer and Director of Corporate Responsibility at the John Lewis Partnership, about the biggest challenges sustainability leaders face, how they are helping organizations make progress, and what key characteristics sustainability leaders need to be successful in transforming their companies—and the world.

Egon Zehnder: How has the sustainability agenda transformed over time?

Benet Northcote: The sustainability agenda has transformed over the last 15 or 16 years from just a few companies and individuals who really understood the scale of the challenge our planet and our society was facing to a middle phase where companies felt the need to bolt sustainability onto their core offerings. We’re now in a final phase where businesses realize that sustainability is fundamental to their activity, to their continued economic success, and to their license to operate. Even more importantly, more businesses understand that sustainability is an investment opportunity. As governments commit to action, the commercial opportunities will grow. It’s this stage, hopefully, that will result in the changes we need to be truly sustainable on this planet.  I think the coronavirus will only accelerate this trend.

Egon Zehnder: What’s different about this moment in time? Why do you believe we can make progress that we couldn’t before?

BN: It’s easy to be glib about the impact of the coronavirus on sustainability. I don’t think it changes things, but rather accelerates pre-existing trends. Of course, the pandemic has shown us what disruption really looks for the whole of society, but even before we knew about COVID-19 I think there was a sense that attitudes on sustainability had changed. There are two key reasons for that. The first, make no mistake, is that our climate is actually changing, and we are beginning to see the effects of ignoring the science for too long. Whether it’s heatwaves, large tracts of the UK under water, or even ski resorts opening late because of lack of snow, it’s impossible to just pretend there’s nothing going on. The second factor, and we’re seeing this through the campaigning of Greta Thunberg and others, is that we have taught an entire generation of young people at school about sustainability and about these issues, and these people are becoming adults who care and don’t want to make the problem worse. We suddenly have a new generation of consumers, employees and voters who are passionate about the subject and want to see action. Having seen a few green waves, each of which has been stronger than the last, my hope is that this green wave is much more solid, and we’re not going to walk back from it.

Egon Zehnder: What is the biggest challenge for a sustainability leader?

BN: I think the biggest challenge you have is the sheer breadth of issues that you’re covering. A retailer, like the John Lewis Partnership, might sell about 350,000 separate product lines, and every single one of those has some sort of impact on the environment—positive or negative. Every company in every sector will have multiple different sustainability challenges. As a sustainability leader, it’s vital to understand all of them and establish where your influence can best be deployed and where you can make the most difference. Targeting your efforts in that area is something you have to focus on. It can be tempting to rush all over the place and start lots of little fires, but that doesn’t give you real progress and it also makes it harder to address the big issues. Ultimately, sustainability is about business strategy and you need to be strategic in all you do.

The other important thing to consider is that the role is changing. As the world wakes up to the scale of the climate emergency, sustainability leaders will need to change how they operate in companies. Traditionally, they’ve been agitators, pushing for change. Now they are going to need to be activators, giving the business a sense of direction on sustainability and unlocking the potential of everyone to solve the climate crisis. If you are a sustainability leader looking to move to the next level, you will have to recognize that the job is changing.

Egon Zehnder: How do you measure success in your role?

BN: You can only determine success if you know what you set out to achieve. That requires a clear strategy and objectives, and then knowing how you’re going to measure them. For example, at the most mundane level, if you’re setting out how to reduce your immediate environmental impact, you have to know what CO2 emissions your business is responsible for, how much you’re going to reduce them by, and then measure how much they’re dropping year-on-year to see if the actions you’re taking are having an effect. At a more macro level, however, I think you can only really judge your success based on how much other colleagues take this agenda as their own; how much the sustainability agenda is fully embedded in the business. Ultimate success? To work yourself out of a job!

Egon Zehnder: What advice would you give someone entering a sustainability role?

BN: For anybody working in sustainability, whether at a leadership level or just starting out in your career, it’s important to understand the one issue or thing about society and the planet that you are personally passionate about. For me, it’s climate change, but for others it’s community or homelessness or rural development. Knowing precisely what that issue is for you is a way of keeping yourself centered on this large and complicated agenda. If you know what you personally care about, then you will respect somebody who cares about another issue. As a sustainability leader, you are facing difficult conversations all the time. The reason our functions exist is because we’re dealing with the complicated and the ambiguous—the things that aren’t immediately obvious. If they were, other departments would already be managing them. We’re dealing with things that aren’t easily packaged up and put on a PowerPoint slide. When you’re dealing with that level of ambiguity, it’s important to know why you’re doing it and what you really care about in order to keep yourself focused.

Egon Zehnder: How much is the sustainability agenda linked to the corporate culture?

BN: A successful sustainability agenda is totally dependent on culture. You need to have an organization that understands why sustainability is important and wants to do something about it. As with a lot of cultural questions in organizations, sustainability is also very dependent on the tone that is set at the top of the organization. If the tone at the top is, “This is important, we’re going to give it space, we’re going to listen and understand what’s happening,” then the culture will inevitably be one that’s more accepting and able to make progress. As the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), part of our role is to give senior leadership the confidence to know what to do in sustainability, so they can then set the culture and the tone for the rest of the organization. I spend a lot of my time mentoring and coaching senior leaders on sustainability, so they can lead their organization confidently.

Egon Zehnder: What are the key competencies required in a sustainability leader?

BN: As the CSO, you must be prepared to understand deeply the subject matter that you’re dealing with in any organization. For example, I’ve worked in retail and I need to understand buying practices and how factory sourcing works just as well as the buying teams if I am to have credibility. You need to have the ability to understand those issues and then explain the challenges of sustainability and of society to audiences in a way that’s relevant. You have to translate between what an NGO or a campaigner might be saying and the pressures a commercial operator might be feeling. You have to be a diplomat with purpose who has a goal in mind and brings everybody along with you. Sustainability leaders also need a good understanding of how corporate governance works. You can make so much progress on personally influencing and reacting to particular issues or delivering particular initiatives, but the way you make systemic change is by getting it embedded in the way the organization is run—getting those KPIs onto the risk register, and having them properly tracked through the audit and risk committee.

Egon Zehnder: What role does the Board play in delivering on the sustainability agenda?

BN: The Board plays an essential role in supporting and championing the sustainability agenda for a company. Firstly, the Board should have a longer-term view and understanding of how the sustainability agenda plays into the future of the business. The Board provides that ultimate sponsorship which will keep senior managers talking about it. This focus can help the executive team have a broader understanding of the impacts to their business and not just be focused on the immediate day-to-day or the next quarter’s results. The Board sponsorship role is crucial.

Egon Zehnder: What is the career path for a sustainability leader?

BN: Traditionally, there hasn’t been a standard career path for sustainability leaders. I’ve worked with operators who’ve reinvented themselves as environmental specialists, NGO or Government policy experts who have moved into corporate life, and some who’ve come out of more academic backgrounds. Ideally, you need a blend of skills: curiosity, resilience, strategic agility and strong communication experience would certainly be essential in anyone hoping to lead in this area. Interestingly, as the subject matures, we are seeing leaders emerge who’ve built their whole careers in sustainability, including having completed a post graduate certificate in sustainability before joining the workplace.

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