“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”
… Margaret Mead

The most enlightened companies have embraced sustainability as a core business value. We know that. The business case for sustainability has been well documented, as companies committed to sustainability save on energy costs and create healthy environments that increase productivity, employee satisfaction and customer engagement.

Yet sustainability executives, for the most part, haven’t taken their rightful places in the C-suite. Let’s examine why that’s the current situation.

The Need for Sustainability Leaders

As I wrote in a post celebrating the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Green Building Council, in the future we will see the emergence of a very senior C-suite real estate professional within the enterprise that will oversee and link all its sustainability programs, from corporate social responsibility, to real estate construction. Add to that managing the effects of climate change.

For the most part, that leader doesn’t exist now. There is a lack of overall strategy for sustainable real estate portfolio programs.

The push for adding full-time corporate sustainability leaders peaked in 2008, according to GreenBiz.com’s last annual State of the Profession study, which examines the role of the sustainability executive within organizations.

Most companies are focusing on incremental change without the necessary commitment to transformative change. This was confirmed in a recent survey of 1,712 corporate members of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) from 113 countries. Limited progress comes despite a warning from the UNGC, the world’s largest sustainability membership organization, that turning a blind eye to sustainability issues is a “ticking time bomb.”

The role of sustainability executives is diminished when they are tasked with the important, but micro, issues of containing costs, the difficulty in resource sourcing, skilled labor shortages and maintaining customer loyalty.

Senior management of some companies don’t see environmental challenges – specifically climate change – as a threat to their organizations. Sustainability goals and environmental challenges are viewed as separate issues. Yet, they are inextricably linked. 

Just Doing Better Isn’t Enough

Creating efficiencies — doing better with what you have — is insufficient in creating transformational change. It is like applying a force on a lever too close to the fulcrum – it requires a lot of effort to achieve a small amount of movement. What we need is more leverage. We have reached a point where we cannot solve new problems with old methods–we need trained sustainability leadersWe feel so strongly about this that Paladino’s head of talent management wrote several articles in this Abundance Blog about what it takes to be a sustainable leader. Instead of treating sustainability issues in silos, we need to see them as symptoms of something larger that requires strong leadership.

I have come to believe, based on 20 years as a sustainability consultant, that great management is about tactical allocation of time and resources towards a pre-defined objective. Leadership, on the other hand, is about definition of purpose – e.g., treating sustainability as a necessary and vital imperative essential to the future existence of an organization.

This is a big shift from corporate America’s view of sustainability. The majority of sustainability positions are titled as managers, and few have line management authority. The scope and span of their duties is limited, and their budgets are less than one times their own labor cost. That’s a small force that is way too close to the fulcrum!

Treating Sustainability as a Vital Imperative

If the CEO and the Board of Directors want to transform the organization, they must make the appropriate investment in a sustainability champion and declare that sustainability is a vital imperative.

We need leaders who can inspire and create platforms to effectively influence change across all areas and at every level in an organization. Sustainability champions are more than transactional, or even transitional, leaders. They are the catalysts that can break old frameworks to embed sustainability as a core competency to achieve transformation in the organization. This requires a set of new leadership skills that are absent in most companies today.

Tom Paladino sustainability leaders





A nationally recognized leader in sustainability, Tom Paladino is the founder and CEO of Paladino and Company.

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