How to go from sustainability director to chief executive

Do you, as a professional working in corporate responsibility or sustainability, expect one day to lead your company?

The chances of a sustainability director going on to become chief executive of his or her company could be as slender as one in a thousand, according to Adam Werbach, sustainability adviser to Wal-Mart (see big interview).

Werbach challenges corporate responsibility professionals to be more commercially minded. He has a point. Corporate responsibility teams could do more to articulate a clear business strategy for their company that will grow sales.

People in corporate responsibility are acutely aware of the need to integrate their work into core business development. Social and environmental issues are increasingly seen as new business opportunities, rather than risks to be managed. But translating this knowledge into practical business plans is easier said than done.

Take social and environmental opportunities such as microfinance, green cars, clean technology, ethical food, and affordable health products for poor countries – all great ideas that big business is buying into. But how many people in corporate responsibility could say their company jumped into these new areas because of them?

Probably not enough. This is despite boards taking note of sustainability like never before, shown by the trend for hiring people into the profession from other, more commercial sides of business.

As companies mainstream ethics, people currently working in sustainability should make sure they are not left behind. Defining a business strategy that transforms ethical initiatives into sales will improve their chances of reaching the C-suite.

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