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Do you have what it takes to be a sustainability leader?

by Shannon Houde

Today’s business school graduates are tomorrow’s leaders, but do they have the skills necessary to lead our society toward a more sustainable future? The Sky Future Leaders survey details the numerous ways that tomorrow’s business leaders identify themselves as the first ‘sustainable generation’. The survey of 750 corporate graduate trainees, high potential middle-managers and MBA students found that a large portion of these current and future business leaders believe in the importance of incorporating sustainability in business practices as well as in their own careers. For example, 96% of respondents plan on being involved with sustainability in their careers, and 79% of cited the vision and values of a company as an important factor when looking at potential employers.

Despite respondents’ expressed interest and support for sustainability, as the Guardian points out, many appear to lack a conceptual understanding of the complexities of sustainability.  While most associate sustainability with common environmental actions like recycling and cutting carbon footprints, their grasp of economic and social sustainability concepts appears more limited.

The task of embedding sustainability into all areas of a business’ operations will require leaders with more than just knowledge and awareness of sustainability issues. To be the world’s first “sustainable generation”, future business leaders must also:

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1. Understand the sustainability landscape.

Knowing the sustainability landscape means understanding how environmental, social and economic sustainability issues relate to your business sector, services, products, and supply chains. You should also be aware of your competitors and their sustainability agendas and strategies.  A true understanding of the landscape makes it possible for managers to successfully link their business strategy with their sustainability strategy.

2. Collaborate.

Collaboration is about finding ways to work across teams, share knowledge and build collective solutions.  This is important in sustainability because no one organisation sits alone in this agenda.  The public, private, and NGO sectors must work collectively to find ways to link policy to practice.  Sharing ideas and knowledge may seem risky in a competitive business environment, but when it comes to sustainability, companies cannot afford to act alone.  Broad, collective action is the only way that the bigger agenda of sustainable futures will move forward.

3. Innovate.

In order to remain competitive in today’s fast-changing marketplace, innovation is the only option.  Sustainability is about staying ahead of the future needs of consumers, employees, and shareholders while minimizing social and environmental impacts.  Creating a better future requires leaders to “shake it up”, to question the status quo, to think outside of the box.  Sustainability is a relatively new and fast-growing function of business, which presents companies with a huge opportunity to lead the way in corporate innovation.

4. Engage stakeholders.

Sustainability leaders will only succeed if they engage others.  Engagement is about listening – listening to stakeholders, to senior executives, to the markets, to partners.  Effective leaders can only truly engage once they understand the needs of its key stakeholders.  Then it is about prioritising their issues, addressing them transparently, and reporting back to the stakeholders the results of the progress and on-going challenges.

If you’re meeting these four key requirements, you may be on the fast track to becoming a sustainability leader.  If you work with a sustainability leader, determine if he or she is exercising these key skills.  If not, encourage change!

This article originally appeared on Acre

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