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Restarting the leadership movement starts with sustainability

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As hiring trends show that most roles are being filled internally, HR managers will need new tricks to assess top talent in the sustainability space. The key will be to identify individuals who are already creating change and exhibiting leadership through disruptive innovation. But who are these people, and where can they be found?

Defining Leadership & Sustainability

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. Bill Gates

Before HR or sustainability hiring managers can recognise these individuals, develop their talents or steal talent from a competitor, they must first define what leadership is, what sustainability is, and why it matters to their organization.

So what does a good leader look like, anyway? A classic business school read, Good to Great by Jim Collins, benchmarks companies that made the leap to great results and sustained them for 15 years. Each profiled company is analogous with a bus, driven by a leader, getting the right people on it first and then deciding where it should go. Sustainability leadership is no different to traditional leadership. It’s just more challenging to be a leader in sustainability because the concepts are evolving, it’s not mainstreamed yet and we don’t have universally standard ways of measuring data to prove the bottom line value it returns.

Often sustainability leadership refers to a company leading their sector or creating competitive advantage through innovation and pushing the envelope. However “the company” is only a leader because it is made up of leaders, innovators, culture changers, resilience seekers. So our focus here is on the talent, the people as leaders in this space.

In a recent article, Joel Makower of Greenbiz notes that corporations are actually lagging behind other types of organizations in terms of leading on sustainability. He notes that “leaders in the scientific community, NGO leaders, leaders of multinational organizations — but, most of all, ‘social entrepreneurs,’ who are now perceived as the sector advancing the sustainability agenda most,” are leading the way. Social entrepreneurs are what I call ‘quiet leaders.’ They are not the ones in the spotlight – they’re the ones motivated by the social or environmental mission of their organization to solve a problem, pure and simple. This is real leadership, just without a fancy office or title, whereby people shift the paradigm with passion – not power.

Leadership Is Expressed, Not Held

The Director of Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria Business School and well-known sustainability thought leader, Jem Bendell, explains that both sustainability and leadership are essentially failed fields, in that “work within fields explicitly labeled ‘sustainability’ or ‘leadership’ hasn’t been that significant for social change in the past years. Leadership should be about helping people do difficult things together that they wouldn’t otherwise do,” he says. “So sustainability leadership is a useful term when talking of helping society transition to a totally different way of life.”

But it is failing us, as we aren’t acting fast enough, together. A crucial part of the puzzle, Bendell believes, is the understanding that leadership is expressed, not held. “Just because you have a position of power does not mean you are helping others achieve what they want in life. Just because you don’t have a position of power does not mean you can’t change things.” After all, we are in this together.

Innovate New Tools to Assess Talent

So how should a hiring manager respond to this complex picture? Most HR teams will use competency frameworks to assess talent for hiring and for development. Sustainability teams will know what technical skills are needed to complement the people, commercial and business skills to achieve their targets. But whose job is it to create good competency frameworks for sustainability teams, leaders and champions within an organization?

From my perspective, leadership in sustainability is all about:

  1. Pushing the boundaries of the norms with energy and drive, but knowing when to park the ego at the door
  2. Innovating and thinking way outside of the box in terms of what is possible far into the future
  3. Inspiring and empowering others to act so that everyone is on the journey together
  4. Understanding others’ perspectives so differences can be navigated smoothly
  5. Making informed decisions that are both ethical and that drive bottom line value, and then being accountable to them
  6. Being resilient enough to make mistakes and setbacks and turn them into opportunities to be challenged

HR and hiring managers can restart the leadership movement by empowering and enabling others to do what they are great at, to give them the flexibility to innovate (disruptively) and to challenge these up and coming leaders to inspire others. It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.

Is your company struggling to define what sustainability leadership is, and why it matters to your organization? Contact me for some expert help in putting together a framework for on-boarding and developing future sustainability leaders in your company.

This article was originally posted on CSRwire.

Shannon Houde

About the Author

Shannon Houde, MBA, is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and Corporate Responsibility (CR) fields.

Read more about Shannon's credentials →

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