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Executive Guide: CEO Decision-Making for Sustainability

Leverage the CEO’s position – at the interface between the external environment and the internal hierarchy of their companies – to drive sustainability.

CEOs can play a crucial role in fostering an environment that supports embedding social and environmental sustainability into the strategies and day-today decisions of their organisations.

Based on findings from interviews and an extensive review of research, this guide responds to the question: Why do some CEOs make the shift to incorporate sustainability into their decision-making—and what holds others back? It covers the perspective of the CEO and the role for change agents.

The CEO’s Perspective

The guide identifies factors shaping a CEO’s thinking on sustainability, from personal readiness, to the business context, to a final “gut check.”

It also identifies three key barriers that prevent CEOs from prioritizing sustainability:

  • lack of relevant information,

  • unclear links to core business, and

  • competing priorities.

The Role for Change Agents

Change agents are individuals who can influence the CEO’s perspective and actions on sustainability. The guide:

  • Shares what CEOs told the researchers were the qualities of influential change agents.

  • Captures what the researchers learned from effective change agents about how they support and influence their CEOs to incorporate sustainability.

“Believe it or not, one of the tactics I adopt is one of just letting mini-crises come up … because it creates a sense of urgency. That blood rush to the brain just makes them more receptive to solutions or different solutions, because now there’s a need to deal with the problem. I just need to do the preparatory work for when the crisis hits, because I can see when it’s coming. Or you fall into the trap of fixing everything before anything ever goes wrong, so everyone goes: ‘Well what’s the big issue? Look at how great everything is!’”

— Change Agent

About the Research

This report was inspired by the Leadership Council of NBS-South Africa and conducted by Dr. Stephanie Bertels, Jess Schulschenk, Andrea Ferry, Vanessa Otto-Mentz and Esther Speck. The project involved a review of over 122 articles and 84 interviews with CEOs, chairpersons and board members, executive team members and internal and external change agents in South Africa and internationally. For additional information on the research, please see the last page of the report.


More Project Outputs

A main report and primer accompany this executive guide. In addition, the Embedding Project hosts complementary resources on CEO decision-making, including Being an Effective Change Agent (Guide, Personal Inventory) and Supporting Your CEO (Guide, Tactical Inventory).

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