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  • CEO Clarke Murphy talks to Meet The Leader about Russell Reynolds Associates' just released first-of-its-kind report -- one that digs into what the new generation of leaders will need to meet sustainability goals in the decades to come.

Protecting people and the planet is the biggest challenge of our lifetime - and one that will require a new type of leadership. CEO Clarke Murphy understands this more than most. His global leadership advisory and executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates has just released a first-of-its-kind report, Divides and Dividends, digging into what leaders need to meet sustainability goals now and in the decades to come.

The survey polled more than 9,500 people in 11 countries - spanning both developed and emerging economies. It also spanned a range of insights, polling top C-level leaders, execs and staffers to identify key gaps between promise and action, and learn what's working and not in meeting critical sustainability goals.

The Meet The Leader podcast talked to Murphy about the survey ahead of the Sustainable Development Impact Summit this week. Read below for some of the top findings that surprised him and the lessons learned that any leader can put into practice.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Think for the long term
Sustainable leaders possess many of the traits any effective leader does: they're capable of taking on great complexity, they listen to a range of stakeholders and they are able to innovate and think differently.

But critical for sustainability leadership is the ability to set audacious goals and rigorously drive ahead despite economic cycles and shareholder pressure. "It takes the commitment through the bull market and the bear market and the bull market and the bear market."

The 'Say/Do' divide
According to the survey, 45% of C-suite executives say their organisation's sustainability strategy is about brand management and being viewed as socially responsible. Far fewer, notes Murphy, around 20%, say they're creating real value. While many leaders around the world are making real change happen, this finding still "spooked" Murphy. Some leaders, he said, are "talking the talk and not walking the walk."

Some leaders have tackled sustainability's ability to set a brand apart but have work to do on making change happen.
Some leaders have tackled sustainability's ability to set a brand apart but have work to do on making change happen.
Image: Divides and Dividends, Russell Reynolds Associates

Tap existing leaders - and promote them
Leaders don't need to rehire their teams - in most cases passionate people are already in place. According to the Russell Reynolds Associates' survey, around 40% of C-suite reports were already working on sustainability projects for their companies, compared to less than a third of their bosses.

Murphy urges leaders to seek out these staffers and get involved with their projects. He also stresses that they must ensure that mechanisms exist within the company to retain these workers and promote them. "Not only do we have to change business operations, we want to be embedding sustainability into the frameworks of how leaders are selected, promoted, rewarded and developed," said Murphy. "So put your hand up, pull people on the team and push the company to be more involved."

Sustainability initiatives are already in motion at many companies - and those leaders can be further developed.
Sustainability initiatives are already in motion at many companies - and those leaders can be further developed.
Image: Divides and Dividends, Russell Reynolds Associates

Embrace small wins
C-suite leaders can be paralysed by competing asks from boards and employees. To make progress, leaders can remind themselves not to go for a "big splash" and focus instead on engaging and empowering groups and leaders within the company and changing dynamics, getting employee support or getting the capital needed for projects to move forward. "Take it in small bites," said Murphy. "Don't go for a home run. Go for singles and doubles."

Think incentives, training
Some of the fastest successes in companies have come after rewards, incentive and renumeration goals were embedded into the annual review process. Additionally, companies must make development opportunities readily available so teams have access to best practices to align teams and speed progress. Says Murphy, "Who else will you develop with you along the way?"

Culture is a key barrier to achieving sustainability goals.
Culture is a key barrier to achieving sustainability goals.
Image: Divides and Dividends, Russell Reynolds Associates

Pick up the phone
The phone can be an overlooked tool for C-suite leaders looking to kickstart action within their companies. The phone's immediacy can be more effective than tools like email in pulling key answers and allowing you to engage leaders quickly.

On these calls, simple questions can be powerful. Those with a head of supply chain management might ask this colleague 'What have we done in the last year that has made the supply chain more sustainable?' Those in a professional services firm might ask the firm's 28- to 35-year-olds 'What are you proudest of this company has done around sustainability?'

"If they don't have an answer, you've got a problem," says Murphy. "And then you can say, 'I'm calling you back in six months and I'm going to tell you what I'm proudest of that we've done.'"

To learn more insights from Murphy and how his study of sustainability study has changed him as a leader, check out this week's episode.

Articles by Clarke Murphy

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