Radically human transformation

Building a more sustainable, radically human organization


Sustainability reached a tipping point in 2020. According to Google Trends, search interest in how to live a sustainable lifestyle increased by 4,550% last spring. But this interest isn’t limited to consumers. Across the value chain, organizations are shifting their business model, and sustainability is now a board-level priority. The arrival of the pandemic highlighted the integration between sustainability as a way of doing business to improve business health and the long-term viability of life on earth.

A panel in our Radically Human Transformation Discovery Series recently took up this issue, exploring how organizations can develop a culture and leaders to promote sustainability. Sozen Leimon, who leads Korn Ferry’s sustainability practice in EMEA, moderated the session. She was joined by Andrew Lowe in Korn Ferry’s sustainability practice, Maggie Patrick from the Korn Ferry Institute, and by Curtis Ravenel, who pioneered sustainability at Bloomberg earlier in his career and is now a Senior Adviser to Mark Carney, the leader of the COP26 Private Finance Hub and UN Special Envoy and Adviser to the Prime Minister.

You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem

The pandemic has made clear that businesses can no longer sit on the sidelines when it comes to their environmental and societal impact. Expectations have increased mightily, according to our interviews of 50 Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs). Today, businesses are perceived either as part of the solution or part of the problem.

That doesn’t mean your company has to be a pioneer, like Unilever, IKEA or Patagonia, but “you have to make a conscious choice about where you’re going to sit on the sustainability maturity spectrum,” Lowe said. He continued, “Being sustainable isn’t a narrative. It’s not a means of risk mitigation or compliance. It’s a strategy and reason for being. Sustainability stems from your purpose and values.” It’s not enough to declare your organization’s intent to be sustainable. You also have to put actions behind your words.

Highly successful sustainable organizations also make these values part of their DNA, from the top of the organization to its bottom. Because sustainable organizations are still swimming upstream, all employees have to advocate for doing work and business differently. Our research has shown that the most successful sustainable organizations score three times higher on persuasion and two times higher on resiliency than the average. “They also rank highly in the very human characteristic of grit,” Patrick added.

Businesses need a new kind of sustainability leader

To succeed, a sustainability movement also requires a new, more radically human type of leadership. Organizations that want to foster greater sustainability need leaders capable of inspiring a movement, driving cultural change and facilitating mindset shifts at every level. Sustainability leaders must set forth an authentic purpose and value set, because all of your people have to believe in and deliver upon them. Evangelism, science and data aren’t enough to convert your employees into believers; leading such a dynamic shift requires leaders with confidence, persuasive skills and persistence.

Our research showed that the ideal CSO has traits and characteristics that fall into three general archetypes.

  1. An “impatient optimist.” Although there is momentum behind sustainability movements, sustainability leaders need resilience, grit and persistence. Change won’t happen overnight, particularly because the prevailing culture may be against them.
  2. A possibilist. These individuals have high confidence as a trait. It’s not ego or arrogance; rather, it’s a strong sense of self-awareness. Successful CSOs believe they have the ability to drive change and secure a more sustainable future. So, they’re comfortable with ambiguity and comfortable providing clarity and direction to others. They’re intellectually curious and open to other views. And they recognize that it’s more important to be effective than right.
  3. A servant leader. They are mission-driven, and they welcome challenges and collaboration. They’re also fine to work behind the scenes; in other words, they don’t covet status or recognition. As one CSO put it, “I’m the Scottie Pippen of my organization. Without me, success doesn’t happen.”

Ravenel emphasized how important it is to meet the business where they are. “The CSO doesn’t want to be perceived as a compliance agent or business agent. They want to be seen as a business partner.”

Sustainability isn’t just a fad

All evidence points to sustainability as a long-term business imperative and not as a mere trend. Ravenel observed, “Sustainability used to be seen as separate from the business but as the right thing to do. The lines are blurred now. The right thing to do increasingly impacts business.”

If you’re ready to start your journey toward a more radically human organization that embeds sustainability into your culture and strategy, you’ll need to pull a variety of levers. You may need to make changes at the structural level, involving organizational design, talent strategy, talent acquisition and performance management and rewards. But you’ll also need to consider changes at the behavioral level as well, driving shifts in leaders, mindsets and skills and ensuring that you communicate and manage that change effectively.

To learn more about embedding sustainability into your workforce and for examples of how companies are starting down the path toward a more sustainable and radically human transformation, watch the replay of the discovery session. And, if you have questions about which levers to pull to accelerate your transformation, please get in touch.