Improving the way the world is led by identifying Sustainable Leaders 

At Russell Reynolds Associates our mission is to improve the way the world is led. We know that who leads an organization matters, influencing everything from the enterprise’s financial success to the experience of its employees, its customers and suppliers, and, importantly, the health of our planet and societies.1

Defining leadership competencies that deliver tangible sustainability results

We believe that meeting the Sustainable Development Goals is more than a matter of strategy, policy, and process—it is fundamentally about leadership and people. 2

While signaling a commitment to sustainability was commonplace a few years ago (and has only increased since then), sustainability experience was not a core leadership requirement. In 2019, our research showed that only 4% of executive and supervisory board roles required sustainability acumen. And so, while businesses spoke about sustainability and embedded it in their marketing materials, they fell short integrating it into decisions about which leaders to hire or appoint.

We wanted to change this reality. In 2020, we partnered with the United Nations Global Compact to create a first-of-its-kind Sustainable Leadership Model, revealing specific competencies that business leaders need to deliver tangible sustainability results alongside financial success. We identified 55 Sustainable Leaders—CEOs and board members of successful companies who had a notable track record of making sustainability core to business strategy and operations—and analyzed what made these leaders different. How were they able to move the dial on sustainability?

We found that these Sustainable Leaders all had a sustainable mindset—a purpose-driven belief that business is not a commercial activity divorced from the wider societal and environmental context in which it operates. And they possessed four specific capabilities that enabled them to drive transformation within their organizations and industries:

Embedding sustainability acumen through our Sustainable Leadership Model

In 2020, we launched our Global Sustainability Practice, which is focused on challenging and enabling organizations to make sustainability core to their leadership DNA.

Drawing on our Sustainable Leadership Model, we developed a diagnostic framework that helps clients accurately predict whether an incoming business leader, such as a CEO, board leader, or Chief Sustainability Officer, has the right competencies to deliver tangible sustainability results.

When we help companies identify executives and board directors, we now encourage clients to include our Sustainable Leadership Model in the role description. By mid-2021 the proportion of role specifications that included sustainability acumen had risen to 30% (from 4% in 2019).

As well as helping to place Sustainable Leaders in companies around the world, we also work with CEOs and board members to develop their sustainable leadership competencies and advise on leadership pipeline development, culture, and board composition.

Since launching our Sustainability Practice we have increased the amount of work we do in this space by 300%, and to date, we have worked with over 200 clients across a wide range of industries, sectors, and geographies on sustainability-related projects.