Lead Strong Episode 16: Sustainable Leadership

This episode of Lead Strong saw hosts and Directors of Cappfinity’s Talent Practice, Celine Floyd and Stephanie Hopper join with Adam Read, Director of External Affairs at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK Ltd and President of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and Hannah Frost, ESG and Sustainability Communications Specialist at Frost ESG Limited, to discuss how leaders can better shape sustainable organizations to deliver a positive impact.

What is sustainable leadership?

Sustainable leadership is about having responsibility and caring about others, whether that be your employees, local communities, or the planet as a whole.

Sustainable leaders understand and strive to find new and innovative ways to put the interests of those they lead and serve ahead of their own.  This could be through a simple act like encouraging the use of more recyclable materials in products or empowering employees to put forward their own ideas in creating a more sustainable environment.

At SUEZ, Adam explained that employees there have been heavily involved in concepts to promote sustainability, putting ideas forward on biodiversity, bug hotels and wild seed sowing on the fringes of their recycling sites.  This benefits the local community who can see a more attractive view of the SUEZ recycling sites, the wider environment and employees who feel valued through seeing their employers put their ideas into action.

Why is it important?

Sustainability and sustainable leadership have always been important, although they’re receiving a renewed focus in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with mounting pressure exerted on world leaders to make positive changes.

Research from Deloitte last year, found that 80% of executives see climate change and sustainability as one of their top areas of concern and that being ‘not bad’ is no longer ‘good enough.’  (Deloitte, 2021).  Sustainability promises to be a priority for Millennial and Generation Z workers for some time to come and so good sustainability credentials are likely to be on many employees’ wish lists when seeking out new career opportunities.

What are the benefits of sustainable leadership?

Sustainable leadership extends beyond the boundaries of having a purely environmental impact because of the positive effect it can have on people.

Hannah explained that having a ‘purpose’ point is key to encouraging positive change.  During the pandemic, many people had time to reflect on their own lives and the work they did.  People were able to see the impact of less cars on the road for example and became more invested in nature by spending time in parks and other outdoor spaces.  This provided a penny drop moment which has since encouraged a shift in direction to make sustainability and the environment a top priority for many.

The key was making things human first and business second.  The pandemic brought this to the forefront because it was a global occurrence and planet-based and something we had not seen previously in our lifetime.  In this way it brought sustainability, environment, and climate change to the fore.

Adam explained that at SUEZ they used their existing business model to add social value to the work they do.  As a recycling business, they already have sustainability at the heart of everything they do, but by encouraging the re-use of existing items they were able to create added social value.

He stated that for every ton of recycling they might create £1,000 of social value locally through employment, training, opportunities and supply chains.  However, in re-use they can create £13-15,000 worth of social value because it involves more training, more people and more skills.

How can we encourage more sustainable leaders?

Sustainable leadership is not something that can be achieved overnight, in fact in many ways it’s about winning lots of smaller races as a pose to a whole marathon.

To encourage more sustainable practices, leaders can utilize many of the skills they have already, such as being a good listener, being curious and showing courage.  Sustainability is extremely important, but also very complicated.  Therefore, leaders should know that it’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable because there are still a lot of unknowns around how greater sustainability can be achieved.

So, let’s normalize a sense of humility and vulnerability around this topic.  More experienced leaders may find that the workforce coming through now in Generation Z is more clued-up on sustainability and the key for leaders will be to tap into this knowledge to create truly great sustainable outcomes for their employees, communities and the planet.

Watch the full episode here.