The Role of Executive Leaders in Sustainable Transformation

Or why executive communications must be at the center of your ESG strategy 

Transformation is tough. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a business leader, maybe in the tech or software industry, and at some point in the last 20 years transformation was on your business agenda. Digital transformation was the biggest corporate buzzword of the early 21st century.

That’s now been replaced by transforming to a sustainable business. 

And this time it’s tougher. Because many business leaders know that they have to build a sustainability strategy, but don’t know where to begin.

Here are five challenges we are hearing from C-level executives:

  1. Clarity – I need clarity on how to implement a sustainability program that is meaningful for my business. 
  2. Data – We already use ESG criteria and know that sustainable business is not just about going green. What data am I missing?
  3. Pressure – My investors are pushing for greater disclosures to meet government regulations but I don’t have the resources to stay on top of the changing regulations.
  4. Talent – I want to attract and keep the right people. The best are purpose-driven, want a new work model, and ask about our company’s sustainability program.
  5. Greenwashing – Gen Z has a built-in bullshit detector but I want them on board. What can I offer this generation?

Moreover, every business leader is faced with competing priorities. Reaching revenue targets, developing product innovations, and hiring post pandemic talent inevitably float to the top. Sustainability is rarely considered a business priority. Yet viewed through the lens of risk, what have you got to lose? 

A lot. Your best employees, your reputation, and the opportunity to build a sustainable business that will outlast your personal legacy.

There is an aspect of ethical leadership to transforming a company with sustainability at its core. You have to believe two central tenets:

  • Purpose and profit can go hand in hand.
  • You have the power to influence a better future for all your stakeholders – investors, customers, partners, and employees. 

Going one step further, you have to share your inner conviction with your people, in person, on paper, and in public. Here are our top tips to communicating your ESG strategy:

  • Own it. Put your voice and name on the company’s sustainability strategy. Everyone in your ecosystem will be looking to you to set the vision, communicate it, and excite people with the mission. The more you communicate, the stronger your message will become, and the more successful you will be. If you don’t own the story, someone else will, and they are likely to misrepresent your efforts. Speak with conviction (those beliefs!) and authenticity. What is your personal journey to sustainability? Is it about securing the future of your children, grandchildren, or nephews and nieces? Is it about having an enduring legacy? Weave those stories into your narrative.
  • Build a culture of sustainability by putting the S in ESG – People are key to the sustainable transformation process and the younger generations have different and higher expectations of their leaders. They expect you to be sensitive to pronouns and all aspects of diversity. They want to dial into calls from Brooklyn or Bali. If they’re considering a job with your company and see similar looking individuals on your “About” page, they’ll move on. You didn’t even pass go with them. Be the leader that people want to work for, the one who appoints women and people of color to the leadership team. You will be rewarded with their loyalty.
  • Transparency and trust are your friends. Loyalty is also gained when you speak honestly about what’s going well and where improvements are needed. Sustainability is a journey and your stakeholders will appreciate hearing progress from the get-go. If you really own it, you’ll be accountable for ensuring that goals are being set and plans implemented. This also means showing up and communicating with conviction and intent internally. Your tribe is more likely to want to contribute to reaching the company’s sustainability goals if they feel part of it.  

I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a business leader. By building, implementing, and communicating a thoughtful ESG program that serves the long term stability of your business, you will gain credibility and trust from employees, customers, business partners and investors. It will be the cornerstone of your legacy on the environment and the individuals around you.

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