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Rozanne Henzen

November 13, 2019

Rozanne Henzen


Wayne Visser

The vision of 15 sustainability experts on individual sustainability leadership

Sustainable Transformation

This is the second of two blogs on the joint research between Antwerp Management School (AMS) and the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) on the nature and benefits of individual sustainability leadership, drawing on 15 expert interviews, their best practices and existing literature. The goal of this research is to better understand the behaviors and talents which define thought leaders and to gather more evidence on how individual sustainability leadership can help companies to attract and develop today’s talents into tomorrow’s leaders.

3 Additional employee Benefits of Sustainability Leadership 

In the first blog we mentioned that sustainability leadership creates numerous employee benefits, such as workplace engagement, employee motivation and the increase of creativity and innovative thinking.

vision of 15 sustainability experts

“Employees are more engaged by the fact that their company is leading by example on sustainability. Furthermore employees have the possibility to develop their talents within an organization where sustainability leadership is present.”

- Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO at Port of Antwerp

Moreover, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management states that morale in companies with a strong integrated sustainability case is 55% better compared to companies with poor sustainability cases. On top of that employee loyalty is 38% stronger1. Our research found three additional employee benefits that we can add to this list.

1. Purpose and pride

All interviewees agreed: their colleagues and employees want to feel like their work matters. They want to contribute to something bigger than themselves, both in terms of business, social and environmental impact. This is exactly what integrated sustainability does. It creates positive impact and value to society. The organizational focus on sustainability resonates with personal values. This creates a healthy balance, because employees are able to do their job consistent with their own values. LinkedIn supports this: 74% of candidates globally want to have a meaningful job2. This turns employees into ambassadors for the organization with their friends and relatives. They feel fulfilled and proud of their organization and job. This leads to an increase in productivity and a decrease in absenteeism. Besides, they stay longer on the job. The organizational focus on sustainability creates a long-term viable business model that is future proof.

“When you wake up in the morning, why would you go to work? That's what we call purpose and sustainability is among the biggest elements in that.”

- Dominique Debecker, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer, Solvay

2. Spillover effect

A positive spillover effect proposes that by engaging in one sustainable behavior, individuals will adopt a positive attitude towards sustainability and therefore engage in other sustainability related behaviors as well. As people spend most of their time at work, organizations have an important role in promoting sustainable behavior. Therefore, the power to influence sustainable behavior on the workfloor and creating a spillover effect at home, lies in the hands of the organization. First, it is important to make the organizational sustainability initiatives visible inside (and outside) the company.

Secondly, by giving more attention to the individual implementation of sustainability practices in the employee experience, employees will familiarize themselves with the implementation of the topic. By setting the right guidelines and giving clear examples, even examples that relate to people’s home life such as a meatless Mondays at the office, an individual sustainability leader does not have to tell their colleagues or employees what to do. They have to create the right employee experience and lead by example.

 “We continue to see that the more embedded sustainability becomes within the workplace, our employees are taking it home. Not only to their family and friends, but also into their communities. We’re trying to help them in understanding how they can leverage it more effectively into their community.” - Andrew Griffiths, Head of Value Chain Sustainability at Nestlé UK

3. Recruitment and Retention of Talent

Sustainability has a positive influence on the recruitment and retention of talent. All our interviewees confirmed this notion. Some explicitly said their employees declared they joined them because of their sustainability mission, vision and reputations, while others noted their number of candidates and spontaneous applicants specifically targeting sustainability roles increased. Additionally, literature shows that a strong focus on sustainability reduces the annual quit rate by 3 to 3,5%, this amounts to a reduction of the average employee turnover time by 25-50%3. Nonetheless, sustainability must not be implemented with the sole purpose to increase the recruitment and the retention of talented individuals. It must be seen as an opportunity to deliver a sustainable future, beyond an organizations’ own business.

We are doing this because of our belief of the role we are playing as part of society and the purpose connected to it. And that leads to attracting talent. But we also believe that if we don't do this, then we don't deserve the license to operate. And we don't deserve to have the talent.” - Jeff Turner, Vice President Sustainability at Royal DSM

Individual Sustainability Leadership

Successful transformation towards corporate sustainability calls for leaders to “read and predict through complexity, think through complex problems, engage groups in dynamic adaptive organisational change and have the emotional intelligence to adaptively engage with their own emotions associated with complex problem solving4. Our research shows that, in line with the notion of sustainability champions and distributed leadership, any individual can be a sustainability leader, regardless of their position in an organisation. However, depending on the following four factors, the impact of individual sustainability leadership might differ.

There is a difference between a formal or informal sustainability role. Particularly, in the level of authority, accountability and sphere of influence. In order to lead an organization in the direction of sustainability and influence co-workers and employees, it is essential to have a broad audience at hand. Usually, this is a given with a formal role. However, leadership does not depend on a formal title, but on behavior. Additionally, there is a difference between facts-based and emotions-based leadership. It is very important to have the facts straight in order to set change into motion, however it also takes a certain amount of emotion to influence others and to get them on board with sustainability initiatives.

An organization operates in a complex reality where there is no ‘one sizes fits all’-approach to individual sustainability leadership. However, the best results can be found when the role and state of information align with the right individual characteristics and competencies.

“You have to be really sure that what you are doing is factual, and not just emotional. It is a balancing act between keeping the engagement, while not losing it by being overly conscious about facts.”

- Annette Stube, Head of Sustainability at Maersk

Characteristics and Competencies of Individual Sustainability Leaders

In the first blog we revealed that our initial research showed a set of six key competencies and characteristics of individual sustainability leaders. Now, after completing the research we can add two more of each. It must be noted that these characteristics and competencies are context dependent. The skill set needed in order to comply with them, might vary depending on the location or sector an individual sustainability leader is operating in5.



Intrinsic motivation

Motivation to engage in sustainable behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying.

Moral courage

The courage to act on sustainability issues for moral reasons despite the risk of negative consequences.



The belief and confidence in the power, reliability, dependability, truth, goodness etc. of the sustainability leader.

Creative mind

A way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh, different perspective than usual, that suggests unorthodox solutions.

Emotional intelligence

The capability to recognize own emotions and those of others, label them appropriately and use this skill to make good judgments and avoid or solve problems.



Visionary engagement
(previously called Clear Vision)

A sharp focus on the future instead of tomorrow, on what the organization needs to become, which provides purpose.

Sustainability literacy
(previously called Societal Consciousness)

A good condition or quality of being knowledgeable in the field of sustainability.

Open communication

Equal, trust-based communication where employees are encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns, without the worry of retaliation.

Business savvy

The ability to structure relevant facts and evidence to build a compelling business case for sustainability.

Holistic view

The view that economic systems and their players should be viewed as wholes, not just as a collection of players.

An individual sustainability leader must have a creative mind to be able to come up with new solutions for the challenges ahead, because these challenges are often unknown ground.

“A sustainability leader needs to be creative in finding solution and think out of the box.” - Anniek Mauser, Sustainability Director at Unilever Benelux

Soft skills and emotional intelligence are needed in order to lead with compassion and to have the ability to understand and relate to co-workers, employees and other stakeholders. Additionally, to create awareness and understanding individual sustainability leaders need to find a balance between facts and emotions, because sustainability cannot rely on only one of those. An individual sustainability leader must also be business savvy. By creating a business case for sustainability, they set direction and lead others on that road. Additionally, individual sustainability leaders have a holistic view and think in systems. They acknowledge the interdependency and interconnectedness of the whole system and recognize how changes to parts of it affect the whole6.

The final report of the joint research between Antwerp Management School and the European Petrochemical Association on the nature and benefits of individual sustainability leadership will be published in December 2019. To read the previous reports published by the EPCA Talent & Diversity Inclusion Council (TDIC) visit the EPCA Website.

 “One needs to have a competence in the topic of sustainability. However, equally important is the understanding of the bigger context the organisation is operating in and an understanding of the business context. Only the connection of the three gives me and my colleagues the opportunity to actually steer sustainable business.”

- Irena Dobosz, Sustainability Leader, Retail Operations at Ikea


1. Society for Human Resource Management. (2011). Advancing Sustainability: HR’s Role. Retrieved on October 10, 2019, from https://www.shrm.org/about-shrm/press-room/press-releases/pages/sustainabilityreport.aspx

2. LinkedIn. (2016). 2016 Global Talent Trends. Retrieved on October 10, from, https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/business/en-us/talent-solutions/resources/pdfs/2016-global-talent-trends-v4.pdf

3. Vitaliano, D. (2010). Corporate Social Responsibility and Labor Turnover. Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Business in Society 10(5), p. 563-573. DOI: 10.1108/14720701011085544

4. Metcalf, L., & Benn, S. (2013). Leadership for Sustainability: An Evolution of Leadership Ability. Journal of Business Ethics 112, 369-384, p. 370. DOI: 10.1007/1055101212786

5. Ruderman, M., Clerkin, C., Connolly, C. (2014). Leadership Development Beyond Competencies: Moving to a Holistic Approach. [White Paper]. Retrieved on October 7, 2019, from https://www.ccl.org/articles/white-papers/leadership-development-beyond-competencies-moving-to-a-holistic-approach/

6. Visser, W., & Courtice, P. (2011). Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice. SSRN Electronic Journal October 2011.

Read more on the research project on Individual Sustainability Leadership