Why today's leaders must do more than just talk sustainability

Following the launch of a new Scotsman webinar in association with leading law firm CMS, we ask what sustainability leadership really means

Sustainability leaders need to be great communicators and storytellers, to put themselves in the shoes of listeners and create a compelling vision.
Sustainability leaders need to be great communicators and storytellers, to put themselves in the shoes of listeners and create a compelling vision.

We hear the word sustainability all the time – but do we stop to think what it actually means?

One popular definition is “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs”.

It’s a short and deceptively simple explanation for an enormously complex goal but many organisations across the public, private and third sectors in Scotland are going beyond the platitudes and making real progress on sustainability.

Allan Wernham, Managing Director of CMS Scotland

Their leaders recognise that contributing to a sustainable future is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. They lead in a way that delivers clear benefits to our environment and society - and to their own organisation.

“The two are not mutually exclusive. Sustainability can deliver positive outcomes for society and the environment, but also tangible business benefits,” says Allan Wernham, Managing Director of CMS Scotland, which hosts an online discussion, Leadership for a Sustainable Future, in partnership with The Scotsman, on November 25.

Zoë Arden, Fellow of the influential Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, is keynote speaker at the free event.

Allan Wernham, James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food and Drink and Andrew Cave, Head of Governance & Sustainability at Baillie Gifford, are all confirmed as panellists.

Zoë Arden, Fellow, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

James Withers says: “Sustainability is at the heart of the food and drink industry in Scotland and is core to how we plan for the future. As part of the leadership organisation for our industry, that means working to make a significant and lasting contribution to the Scottish economy, alongside the responsible stewardship of our environment and society.

“We cannot hope to build a sustainable future without strong partnerships, clear communication to all our members and stakeholders, and an innovative and resilient mindset which allows us to rise to major challenges - and we have not been short of challenges in 2020!”

Communication will be a key focus of Zoë Arden’s keynote address. As a former Director of Communications and CSR at BT Retail, she is a strong advocate of leaders being able to explain why sustainability matters in very clear terms.

She wrote in a recent blog: “More than ever, the world needs leaders who are skilled communicators who can work with others to have a positive influence and impact. Why? Because today’s world is complex and the problems we face, like Covid-19, are wicked ones. We can’t respond on our own. We need self-aware individuals to show up at all levels of organisations and throughout society who can break the mould: communicate, collaborate, co-create, engage and inspire.”

Reflecting on her time as a Master’s student on the Sustainability Leadership programme at Cambridge, Arden says: “What intrigued me most was how often the question asked at the end of a session was: how do we communicate this to our employees/the board/suppliers?

“It wasn’t just students asking, it was the experts that were struggling. Trying to advance sustainability in organisations is a really tough job.

“Sustainability leaders need to be great communicators and storytellers, to put themselves in the shoes of listeners and create a compelling vision. Great communication is essential for business engagement and change. Stories are not just for kids. They can inspire action and change.”

Arden has worked with a wide range of businesses on sustainability storytelling and leadership, including Accenture, AstraZeneca, Barclays, BBC, Google and Nestlé.

Allan Wernham says it is vital that corporate business and SMEs in Scotland ‘walked the walk’ and didn’t just ‘talk the talk’ by including sustainability firmly on the agenda of its leadership team and implementing sustainable solutions.

“It is really important to dig down and understand what we mean by sustainability, how business can contribute to a more sustainable future and what good leadership in sustainability looks like. CMS is thoroughly committed to sustainability and understands that all employees need to feel part of that – and it’s not just about asking them to share a vision but to be a part of creating that vision in the first place.

“As a global law firm, we have the international reach and scope to advise on big, complex issues around climate change and the growing importance of ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) goals – and we have to embrace them ourselves. We do this on a global level but also in every jurisdiction we work in, because sustainability has to be all about thinking globally and acting locally. That is reflected in our commitment to reach Net Zero by 2025.”

Key talking-points at the free event, hosted by experienced events professional David Lee, are:

What does leadership for a sustainable future really mean? How can business benefit now and in the longer-term from a sustainability mindset? How can leaders communicate their vision and bring their people with them? Why is it so important to collaborate across sectors and share best practice? How can organisations build capacity and nurture the sustainability leaders of the future?

​​​​​To register for the free event which takes place between 1pm and 2.15pm on Wednesday, November 25, click here.