6 Effective traits of a sustainability leader

Having worked with several successful sustainability leaders, I started thinking about what makes these people so effective at embedding sustainability within their business. I think a dogged sense of tenacity is definitely required! But I’ve also managed to distil it down to the following common qualities:

  1. Competence – there is no avoiding the fact that relevant qualifications and real life experience of working in the sustainability field count for a great deal. Sustainability leaders will be judged initially on focusing the business on what matters and being competent in translating and aligning the sustainability agenda into business-as-usual activity. It doesn’t end here, but a sound knowledge of relevant issues provides sustainability leaders with a solid foundation from which to innovate.
  2. Building networks – in addition to the ability to build internal networks, the sustainability leader is also expected to create external networks and relationships outside of the business to support and help implement their vision. This can help twofold: firstly by creating a support network which can share best practice and help overcome hurdles; secondly it can provide a cycle of continuous engagement with key stakeholders.
  3. People skills – I have rarely seen anything achieved through a silo approach to managing sustainability issues. Managing down, across and up through the organisation requires ‘soft skills’ to bring everyone on board. In my experience, an approachable sustainability leader is more likely to gain ‘buy-in’ from colleagues across the business; particularly when key activities require enforcing.
  4. Communication is everything – the way in which key sustainability goals and targets are communicated is critical to making a difference to the success of your sustainability agenda. Persuasion skills are hugely important to be highly effective, and an effective sustainability leader will plan effective communications which meet the specific needs of their target audiences (they will also understand who their target audiences are!)
  5. Passionate – it is often argued that change only comes from passion and alignment with personal values. Effective sustainability leaders therefore need to show that they care about the ‘causes’ in which they are seeking to engage with stakeholders. The best leaders show integrated passion, which doesn’t isolate the business and is grounded in reality.
  6. Sharpening the pencil – keeping relevant and up-to-date is vital in this fast moving world, and an essential prerequisite in what is still a relatively immature profession. The most successful sustainability leaders recognise that it is important to sharpen a wide range of skills relating to the wider business and the sustainability agenda, and not just build upon technical skills!


Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts on effective sustainability leaders @corpbalance