From compliance to competence: Closing the sustainability talent gap

Sustainability’s rise from peripheral concern to strategic priority has ignited skyrocketing demand for specialised talent. With climate change now a defining business challenge, companies seek experts who can guide them into the sustainability era. But this abrupt ascent has left talent pools unprepared, with gaps ranging from recent graduates to the C-suite.

At the entry level, the situation seems less dire, as sustainability education has expanded through university courses and internships. Graduate programs are highly competitive, signalling strong interest from the new generation in building purpose-driven careers. Some companies even have special graduate schemes dedicated to sustainability, illustrating its integration into talent development strategy. While positive momentum exists, questions remain about the future evolution of roles. Will sustainability follow other professions in developing specialised experts versus generalists? With the field encompassing diverse disciplines like climate science, human rights, biodiversity and more, increased specialisation seems likely. Time will tell whether this fragments sustainability or if the multiplicity of experts can still be directed by central leadership like a Chief Sustainability Officer. Regardless, the influx of formally qualified young professionals introduces an interesting dynamic.

Moving up the ladder, talent tensions become more pronounced. Mid-level managers possessing five to 10 years of relevant experience are scarce and highly sought after. This imbalance enables substantial remuneration increases, counteroffers and accelerated promotions for those lucky few boasting applicable expertise. Organisations aggressively compete for these professionals, dangling generous pay and diverse project exposure. While positive for individuals, this talent drain needs mitigation. Companies can combat attrition by actively upskilling internal high-potentials. Investment in capability building is vital, as buying talent provides no competitive edge.

Targeted training programs, rotational assignments, mentoring schemes and other development pathways can expand the capabilities of current managers. Building talent internally also bolsters retention through increased engagement and expanded opportunities. Some companies are even piloting “talent swaps” where high-potentials temporarily embed at sustainability-advanced peers to gain exposure. While not the norm yet, such creative approaches illustrate how seriously some organisations are taking this issue. The war for external talent rages, but long-term success requires cultivating your own.

Ascending further, needs become more visible as gaps grow glaring. Positions like “Head of ESG” and “Chief Sustainability Officer” exist, but often lack influence. They may carry modest seniority within organisations or be constrained by misaligned reporting lines into areas like communications, rather than strategy. This impedes integrating sustainability into core business decisions. Additionally, most current C-suite members and board directors boast extensive traditional business experience but little sustainability grounding. And those with strong sustainability credentials rarely have comparable senior leadership records. This shortage of qualified leaders at the top levels slows progress. It also raises concerns given the complexity of climate risk and the strategic reorientation it necessitates.

Many companies try filling senior gaps by redeploying or hiring leaders without sustainability expertise. But lacking directly relevant experience often overstretches people. Retraining helps close knowledge gaps but is slow. Upper leadership roles demand both subject matter expertise and business acumen. While cultivating internal talent remains critical, external hiring has advantages when the qualifications list is long and specific. This is especially true for board appointments, where term limits require fulfilling immediate needs.

Bridging senior divides requires a multi-faceted talent strategy. Consultancies provide knowledge, but some capabilities must be owned. Specialist advisors can deliver targeted guidance and training on an interim basis. Seeking talent globally is valuable in this rapidly internationalizing field. Recruitment partners accessing niche talent networks are invaluable for surfacing elusive but qualified leaders, with the rare blend of sustainability credentials and business experience top roles demand. Appointing non-executive directors is an opportunity to inject urgently needed climate literacy into boardrooms. And crucially, robust learning programs must also develop in-house talent.

While sustainability should permeate all roles, mastery requires dedicated experts. The field now spans a vast scope of specialties, demanding specialised knowledge. Sustainability is shifting from a peripheral compliance function toward an essential core competency. This transition is evident in the heightened demand for talent. Current gaps reflect a seismic shift – growing pains in a crucial organisational evolution. To ride this wave, companies must implement holistic talent strategies. This will provide the senior leadership and specialised skills needed to embed sustainability and reorient towards ethical, sustainable value creation.

The talent transformation mirrors sustainability’s escalating strategic importance. With climate change redefining risk parameters, proactive companies are realigning business models to balance purpose and profits. But this profound shift relies on leaders who can guide organisations into uncharted territory with courage and conviction. A company’s destination hinges on its guide. While gaps create friction now, they also reflect progress. The talent surge signals sustainability moving centre stage. Heading into this new era, comprehensive talent strategies will equip organisations with the human capital needed to lead the way.

The sustainability journey requires translating lofty aspirations into operational excellence. Many companies have made bold carbon neutrality or ESG commitments. But delivering on ambitious goals takes granular subject matter expertise across the value chain, from supply chain reinvention to product life cycle assessment to circular business models and more. Organisations must therefore build breadth and depth of talent, from executive leadership down to technical specialists. A sophisticated understanding of stakeholder needs is also essential, spanning diverse constituencies like shareholders, customers, frontline employees and communities.

While daunting, this moment also holds great opportunity. The combination of sustainability’s rising strategic importance and the gaps in traditional talent pools provides space for new voices to emerge as leaders. Younger, more diverse talent and employees whose roles previously side-lined them from strategic decisions can now contribute meaningfully. The companies that will lead are those empowering fresh perspectives and human capital across their organisations.

In summary, sustainability’s ascent has spurred skyrocketing talent demand amid underdeveloped supply. While challenging now, this reflects tremendous progress and potential. With comprehensive strategies, companies can cultivate the specialised leadership and technical experts needed to embed sustainability throughout their organisations. This will position them to translate ambitions into action and values into value creation. The sustainability era has arrived, and talent will determine who leads the way.