Now, more than ever, sustainability must be at the heart of leadership, writes Rhonda Doyle, Senior Director of Field Services Operations at Schneider Electric.

Fortunately 91% of employees believe that their chief executive is engaged with sustainability, and 82% think that their organisation will have a year-on-year increase in sustainability ambition this year. However, ambition doesn’t always mean action. It’s up to sustainable leaders to drive this forward.

As the world faces ever-increasing environmental and economic challenges, the need for sustainable leadership has become increasingly urgent. Rising energy costs, incoming environmental, social, and governance (ESG) regulations, and reduced access to investment creates a delicate balancing act for leaders. Implementing sustainable practices is easier said than done, and businesses face many challenges in their eco-journey.

Four elements make up a successful sustainable leader. First, an understanding and embodiment of the key traits required to lead in a sustainable manner. Next, internal and external collaboration. Thirdly, ensuring transparency and finally, recognising the importance of both short-term projects and long-term vision.

Exemplify the traits of a great sustainability leader

At their core, successful sustainability leaders are great communicators. They must be capable of engaging employees, suppliers, customers, and investors to deliver the sustainability vision of the organisation. They should be adaptable learners, keeping up with constantly changing regulations and external factors – continuously feeding this back into their ESG strategy.

As an expert in their field, sustainability leaders must have a deep understanding of the topic and unique challenges their organisation faces, able to simplify the technicalities and educate the company on the right way forward. Effective decision-making is also crucial, given the complex nature of sustainability and the many dilemmas they face. In its recent survey, Edie found that the three most important skills and traits in future sustainable business leaders are the ability to motivate and empower others, collaboration skills, and genuine passion.

Collaboration skills are particularly important – and not just inside organisations. Teamwork with external partners and even with competitors helps to maximise impact.

From competitor to ally

The urgency of the climate crisis demands a collaborative approach that transcends business rivalry. It is no longer enough for businesses to focus on outperforming competitors or maximising profits. Instead, there is a growing need for organisations to work together towards a common goal of sustainability. This involves a shift in mindset from seeing competitors as adversaries to viewing them as allies in the fight against climate change. As well as this, younger generations are less likely to join companies who aren’t open about their sustainability progression and results. If companies want an influx of new generations of workforce in their organisation, it’s no longer an option to avoid transparency.

Successful sustainable leaders recognise that no single organisation can solve the climate crisis. By collaborating, sharing best practices, and learning from each other, companies can make meaningful strides towards sustainability goals. When looking at emissions for example, reducing scope 1, 2 and 3 depends on effective collaboration with suppliers. Openness and visibility of supply chain data opens the door to innovation, allowing sustainable leaders to pinpoint issues and work together – regardless of past competition.

Transparency is key

With progress towards ESG goals, companies must be able to “show their working”. Organisations must be transparent in their actions and results, allowing sustainable leaders to hold the organisation to account. With the increasing importance of ESG reporting and maturity around sustainability, there are more external demands on companies to be transparent about what they’re doing. This transparency helps to eliminate claims of greenwashing and highlight sustainability wins.

As organisations work towards net zero or other ESG targets, they must keep the next generation of leaders and customers in mind – those who prioritise a company’s social responsibility and values.

Short-term action, long-term vision

One of the biggest challenges businesses face is accessing investment. Transforming a company’s operations to be more environmentally friendly can require significant spend in technology, infrastructure, and talent. However, the return on these investments may not be realised for many years. This can make it difficult to secure buy-in from investors who may be focused on shorter-term gains.

Sustainable leaders need to be data-minded and leverage technology to their advantage. They must ask their organisations what changes can they make now? What really matters to them as a business? And then what matters to their employees as well? By finding short-term projects with great payback potential, leaders can generate immediate cost savings and progress towards sustainability goals. The quick wins of these short-term projects, such as implementing smart building technologies and reducing energy consumption, lays the groundwork for long-term transformation.

Sustainability has become a crucial part of business operations. Sustainable leaders must work to embody key traits of the role, drive collaboration, be transparent, and balance short and long-term visions. Ultimately, there is much more work needs to be done. Climate change is going to be at the forefront of the agenda for the foreseeable future, and it’s down to each of us to ensure we limit its impact by innovating, adapting and leading the way one step at a time.