The Leap of Strategic Sustainability Development

By Tarja Oinonen

At the beginning of the year, Tarja Oinonen, Engagement Manager Mercuri Urval Finland, mapped the development and current situation of companies' strategic responsibility leadership. Via MS Teams, they interviewed sustainability managers and executives of 30 medium to large companies in Finland. 

“We wanted to learn how sustainable development is linked to corporate strategy and what this work requires of sustainability leaders and managers.” - Tarja Oinonen

In the last two years, sustainable development has become more goal-oriented, strategic and its’ themes are widely implemented in practice in various business units. This so-called leap of sustainability is ongoing in most companies – and those who haven’t already stepped into the sustainability train should definitely hurry.

A few of the top findings:

  • The number of sustainability-related recruitments has increased significantly during the past 10 years. The most common titles in the recruitment processes are e.g. Head of Sustainability, Head of Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability Manager, or Sustainability Specialist. Sustainability management has grown into a strategic and comprehensive role.
  • Sustainability managers or their supervisors are often part of the executive team or extended executive team. Usually, the sustainability person reports directly to the CEO.
  • The pressure to take action can come from multiple directions: from the company owners, board, CEO, customers, clients, investors, or from the personnel. Yet, the sustainability targets and actions are only transferred to the staff if the executive team and board are committed.
  • Competition, forerunner reputation, and new business opportunities are the most effective drivers for companies to make sustainability a part of the company strategy and practices.
  • Alike most strategic actions, sustainability does not contribute quick results and therefore can be seen as a hindrance. Most respondents claimed that numerical and concrete sustainability targets set for each business unit separately are the best way to motivate and inspire personnel. Results are reached through patient long-term actions. 

The role of the company board

The sustainability leaders we interviewed urged the company board to take concrete action to support sustainability. Bringing sustainability into the company strategy, budget, decision-making, and reward system were all seen as highly effective ways to promote the matter. Many sustainability leaders hoped that the topic would be taken into consideration while reviewing company values and ethical principles.

Sustainability is a rather complex and comprehensive topic that can be understood in multiple ways. One of the main tasks of sustainability leaders is to create a common understanding, language, and rules about sustainability in the company. Promoting sustainability inside the company puts the communication skills of the sustainability leaders to a test.

Is there a need for Sustainability Leaders in the future?

Companies have a growing need for multi-talented sustainability experts. These professionals are expected to push sustainability issues forward – into the strategy and becoming an integral part of all company actions.

Therefore, future sustainability leaders must have the ability to demonstrate the value and importance of responsibility and be future-oriented. The following characteristics are the most needed skills of future sustainability leaders.

  • The sustainability leader is a multidisciplinary expert. Success in the task requires a person to prioritise, distinguish the most significant things out of huge task piles, and perceive the interdependencies.
  • Most often, the position is built on strong cooperation with internal and external stakeholders. The person responsible for sustainability must have the ability to inspire, encourage, and get personnel to commit.
  • Sustainability leadership is a change management process: it is the constant building of relations, influencing and managing networks. As work with sustainability is usually matrix management, it demands perseverance.
  • Sustainability can be promoted in the organisation with the analytic usage of data. This has been seen as the most effective way to justify sustainable actions. The person responsible for sustainability should therefore have a background and understanding of business. Also, great communication skills and background in communication and marketing were seen as an asset when aiming to boost sustainability inside an organisation.

Cooperation is a key success factor in promoting sustainability. The best results have been achieved when the whole organisation is involved, making sustainability a shared target. Through the commitment of top management, sustainability begins to live through every role and yields results – as a common good and a growing competitive advantage.

Our Sustainable Development Team has been existing since 2016. The purpose is to have a better understanding of management and competencies in the field of sustainable development and corporate responsibility. During these years we have managed to get in touch and built a network with top influencers and business management as well as investors and decision-makers. The Leap of Sustainability in Finland is ongoing.