Three Types of Sustainable Business Leaders

The UN Global Compact and Russell Reynolds Associates have found that sustainable business leaders fall into one of three types. It’s important to be able to recognize these traits when selecting next-generation leaders.

In the “Personal Leadership for the Global Goals Asia” session of the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit which was held online in June, three speakers shared how one can fall into one of the three categories of sustainable business leaders. 

The most passionate type of sustainable leader is the ‘awoken’. The awoken have had a personal experience of things like climate change and have seen the impact for themselves. Prakash Shukla, President of the Mahindra Group, is one of these people. Shukla recognizes that people from New York, London or Shanghai may not have noticed that their environment has changed over the last 25 years and therefore, the issues surrounding climate change may not resonate as strongly with them. However, for those who do have a direct connection to the significance of climate change, they may possess a powerful personal belief in the need for sustainable action, with no need to be convinced through data and statistics as many others do. When searching for future sustainability leaders, those who have personal experience may be better able to make the right decisions moving into the future.

Almost half of the sustainable business leaders surveyed identified as ‘born believers’, an estimated 45 per cent. These individuals have had a sustainable mindset since a young age and have known the right thing to do for people and planet. One way to quickly identify those more likely to be born believers in sustainability is to ensure you have a diverse workforce. Farzanah Choudhury, Chief Executive Officer of Green Delta Insurance, recognizes that “diversity is very much important for growth and sustainability”. This notion is supported by a recent study carried out by Russell Reynolds Associates in partnership with the UN Global Compact, which found that of the 1,000 global executives surveyed, the 55 executives deemed to be leaders in sustainability were a much more diverse group of people than the rest of the executives. When looking for the next generation of leaders, it’s important to seek out people with different backgrounds and diverse experiences to ensure a balanced perspective and workplace culture. Choudhury has worked in a diverse range of fields which, as she noted, has provided her with valuable experience for tackling multifaceted issues. 

The third type of sustainable business leaders is the ‘convinced’ (43 per cent). While the convinced weren’t born with a sustainable mindset, they were able to acquire it over time. Sandra Wu, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of Kokusai Kogyo, spoke about how she educates her employees to become convinced: “Education plays a key role in incubating the desired mindset in our company.” Wu said the key to developing the right mindset is through repetition. Kokusai Kogyo has built a bottom-up approach to ensure that the company culture is aligned with sustainable practices. It’s for this reason that the company “incubates their leaders internally rather than recruiting them externally”. If they do have to recruit externally, then training starts hard and fast. One example of how Wu incorporates this strategy into company practice is by gathering 100 of Kokusai Kogyo’s executive directors and business division heads and asking them to come up with a vision for the company in 2030 that is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Exercises and practices like these will also allow today’s leaders to recognize sustainable excellence in tomorrow’s leaders and reward them accordingly.

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