Taking the lead

1st February 2024


To make real change on sustainability, it’s time to redefine leadership models, writes Chris Seekings

Now that the dust has settled on the tumultuous climate negotiations at COP28 in Dubai last year, it is more obvious than ever that businesses need to step up and fill a leadership vacuum.

Almost four times as many fossil fuel lobbyists registered for this climate summit than for the previous conference in Egypt – which itself was a record year for oil and gas influence – while just weeks before the negotiations COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber claimed there is “no science” behind the push to phase out planet-warming fuels.

The final cover text did include an agreement to “transition” away from fossil fuels, but the “phase out” language many had hoped for was dropped, and the text was said to contain “a litany of loopholes”.

It should have dawned on the business community, if it hadn’t already, that companies need to take more responsibility for their social and environmental impacts, and not rely on the hollow promises of politicians and energy giants to lead us out of the climate crisis.

Defining leadership

Although there is no universally accepted definition of what leadership is, it’s obvious that many of the traditional assumptions are partly responsible for leading us to the environmental challenges we face today.

For decades, businesses have believed that natural resources are limitless, and that maximising their extraction for ‘wealth’ creation should be the primary goal of a good leader – COP28 demonstrated that many still believe this to be the case.

The biodiversity loss and climate change resulting from this mindset has led to a more responsible approach, but many business leaders too often still view sustainability as a tickbox exercise.

IEMA Fellow Dr Ross Marshall says: “To be an environmental leader you must possess, not only an internal focus on matters such as waste, pollution, resource management and efficiency, but also an external focus to perceive and respond to a wide range of factors that safeguard the rights and safety of other communities and the environments they inhabit.”

He adds: “This outward-focusing aspect of environmental leadership is often forgotten when it is being compared with other leadership models.”

A good environmental leader should remain cognisant of as many external environmental and social issues that are relevant to their business as possible when making decisions, and this requires a central altruism and commitment to environmental beliefs.

Balancing economic and environmental, social and corporate governance performance, and maintaining staff wellbeing and ethical practices are also prerequisites, along with a desire to influence the values, cultures and behaviours of multiple stakeholders.

Culture change

However, these environmental leadership qualities should not be exclusive to a CEO, CFO or COO, and it’s important that all stakeholders have a shared purpose and mission.

“The more traditional transactional command-and-control leadership models that exist – the ‘I lead, you follow’ approach – don’t get an environmental adviser, manager or director with environmental accountability very far,” Dr Marshall says.

Indeed, it is often the expectation that environmental managers or sustainability officers exert influence up, down and across established management power chains, and through contacts inside and outside their organisations.

Leigh Broadhurst PIEMA, environment and sustainable development lead at resource and waste management firm SUEZ, explains how he helped develop a Sustainability Champions Network to deliver culture change throughout the company. “We now have sustainability champions across 98% of our 300+ portfolio of sites to implement our 10 sustainability principles, which were designed by our employees, and we’ve supported them with workshops on each principle to support action,” he tells me.

“They have autonomy to implement our principles based on where their site is and the opportunities it presents, and are supported from the top, but it has been self-perpetuating, rather than dictatorial, reigniting the enthusiasm of staff to work within a sustainable framework. We recognise the opportunity for each of our 6,000+ employees to take one or more actions to improve sustainability within the company.”

Measuring success

Other companies such as Deloitte and CBRE have had success embedding a sustainable culture using gamified micro-learning courses. For example, CBRE, a real-estate company, partnered with Stickerbook to engage staff with its strategy and key sector issues.

Staff collect stickers by watching short videos and completing simple actions, and collections are recognised through individual and team leaderboards and competitions.

“This has helped embed a more sustainable culture, which CBRE tracks through employee sentiment, such as understanding how involved and engaged employees feel with sustainability strategy, which 98% now do, if they feel more empowered to act sustainably, also 98%, and if they feel they have the green skills to talk about sustainability with clients, now at 79%,” explains Simon Kelly MIEMA, Stickerbook’s co-founder.

“They also track the community of people that voluntarily engage with the initiative – which grows by 8% per month through internal advocacy. This doubles their green community every nine months so that 89% of colleagues are now involved.” Stickerbook has even partnered with IEMA to offer a route to affiliate membership for its clients.

It is also increasingly common for environmental leaders to remunerate staff based on sustainability indicators, which research has shown improves non-financial performance.

“Two years ago, we revisited our critical success factors, and introduced one on social value, and one on the environment,” Broadhurst explains. “Every year, employees are remunerated based on their contributions towards these, and we also have critical success factor awards, which employees are nominated for to recognise success.”

Challenges and rewards

Implementing such initiatives can be a challenging task, however, and there is growing recognition of a ‘value-action gap’ when businesses and individuals struggle to act on their values. Kelly says environmental leaders need to be aware of the constraints on their colleagues’ time and says they should pursue the “path of least resistance”.

“Adding any friction or barriers to engaging with sustainability is a disaster – asking colleagues to commit time is fraught with drop-out,” he explains. “Engaging must be as simple and quick as possible, and if you want colleagues to act in a certain way, make this crystal clear.”

He also says that it’s important to give staff control and ensure they recognise that embedding sustainability is a “team game”. “Remember, people want to engage, so don’t make it a chore, and don’t make them feel like they’re being watched. Show that you have a community of people in the same boat and recognise and reward those taking positive actions in line with your desired culture and promote the actions and people you want others to follow.”

It’s important to note that there are significant rewards on offer for environmental leaders, other than protecting the planet. A study of 180 companies over 18 years by the Harvard Business Review found that those with solid sustainability practices had better financial performance in terms of return on assets and equity.

A poll of 2,000 employed adults in the UK commissioned by global recruitment experts Michael Page also found that 27% are eyeing a green job as their next career move.

“We’re seeing more and more employees want to work for an organisation that walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk, when it comes to operating in a responsible manner,” Broadhurst says. “This is an important consideration to retain existing and to attract new talent, which is only going to increase as societal concerns continue to rise in the future.

“When considering the third ‘P’ of the triple-bottom line, profit, sustainability initiatives such as travelling less and using energy more efficiently also have a direct economic benefit for SUEZ, and allow us to pass on savings to our customers as well.”

Setting an example

With the final COP28 cover text calling for “transitional fuels” and accelerating the roll-out of low-emission technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, it appears that many of our political ‘leaders’ still do not appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

Despite many of us feeling disheartened, the high-level ambition to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is still alive – even if it is on life support – and business leaders should see this as an opportunity to take control of the climate narrative.

They can provide the inspiration and impetus that is too often missing at the conclusion of these COP summits and set an example for others to follow.

IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE adds: “One of the biggest challenges that environmental leaders face at organisations worldwide is a glaring skills gap. The transition away from fossil fuels will only be possible with a workforce capable of delivering that transition.

“True leadership will come from those that recognise this skills shortage and invest in the green jobs and training needed to deliver a sustainable future.”


For further information on green skills, visit www.iema.net/all-jobs-greener, www.greencareershub.com and www.iema.net/articles/iemas-call-for-green-skills-commitment-at-cop28-gains-support


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