While 58% of directors in our survey said that a majority of the directors on their board have the necessary skills and experiences to address sustainability, it is unclear if that is perception or reality. Corporate governance analysts have reported a lower-than-desired level of directors with sustainability qualifications or relevant experience on major boards today. But, to the extent that skill or capability gap exists, it may be closing: Our recent research with nominations and governance committee chairs found that 63% say sustainability is now a critical leadership competency for prospective directors, and the majority surveyed said that the competency is more important now than ever before.
It’s clear that boards have work to do to build confidence among their management teams, investors, and other stakeholders as to their ability to effectively manage sustainability. What is less clear is whether this requires directors to personally possess technical sustainability expertise, or whether effective management can be enabled by the board’s reliance on outside expert advice when needed. As the sustainability leaders and laggards of each industry become increasingly easier to identify, the market will likely provide a useful measurement for the importance of sustainability credentialing for the board.
From Insights to Action
In our study on The Board’s Role in Sustainable Leadership, we identified actions for boards to take in order to strengthen their engagement with and oversight of corporate sustainability activities, including:
- Proactively engage with external stakeholders about sustainability to ensure you understand their priorities and concerns.
- Embed sustainability into all discussions with the CEO and executive team.
- Establish a purpose-driven culture at all levels that looks at issues through a sustainability lens.
- Educate directors on sustainability.
- Apply a sustainability lens to corporate strategy decision-making.
- Identify key material factors based on the business, setting goals and establishing clear metrics for tracking progress toward them.
- Structure the board to engage meaningfully on sustainability.
- Change compensation models to account for sustainability targets.
- Prioritize a sustainability mindset when hiring directors.
- Prioritize a sustainability mindset when hiring CEOs.
As investors and stakeholders continue to advocate for sustainability efforts, and as expectations grow for corporations to play a central role in making the world a better place, board leaders must find ways to enable and drive sustainability in the corporation. By engaging thoughtfully around these 10 actions—which relate to the issues of board leadership; board culture; purpose, strategy, and risk alignment; structure and process; and people and composition—board leaders can ensure that their company “does well by doing good.”
Over 1,100 supervisory board-level directors from more than 41 countries participated in the Russell Reynolds Associates’ 2022 Global Board Culture and Director Behaviors Survey, with 55 percent of respondents based in Europe, 27 percent in the Americas, 12 percent in Oceana, 3 percent in Asia, 2 percent in Africa, and 1 percent in the Middle East. Industries represented included financial services (26 percent of respondents), industrial and natural resources (22 percent), consumer (11 percent), technology (11 percent), healthcare (10 percent), and professional and business services (6 percent). Forty-four percent of respondents’ companies had annual revenue over $1 billion.