Look for certain qualities to identify employees who will tackle a company’s sustainability challenges.
We all know the traditional interview questions, such as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” “Why do you want to work at our company?”
But what do you ask if you’re looking for someone who can move the company toward better social and environmental performance?
Research that colleagues and I have conducted provides some answers. In a series of studies, we have found that leaders who promote social and environmental issues are more likely to have:
environmental experience (whether personal or professional)
training in business rather than law, and
exposure to shifting trends in society.
Looking for these qualities in managers’ backgrounds can help us identify leaders who will commit to sustainability agendas.
Here’s more detail on what to look for.
Environmental experience translates into positive environmental impact
When Francesco Starace became the CEO of Enel Group in 2014, he already had six years of experience in green energy based on his prior role as well as being on the board of the UN Global Compact. Unsurprisingly, Starace brought green energy into the mainstream of Enel Group’s strategy.
My research with colleagues affirms that prior environmental experience among managers means stronger environmental performance for their companies. For example, companies with board members who have environmental experience outperform their peers when it comes to environmental performance . Similarly, managers whose childhood experiences connect them to nature pay attention to their company’s environmental impact — and their own personal footprint .
Experience matters because people with enough experience become experts, who are better able to make sense of complex and ambiguous information for others around them. Experts are also more likely to notice things that other people do not, and take advantage of opportunities that arise unexpectedly .
Expertise on environmental issues can be gained either through prior job experience or other life activities. These can go back as far as childhood experiences, such as school nature trips or teachers who talk about environmental protection . Environmental experience can also come from participating in outdoor activities such as hiking or gardening, engaging in activism, or seeing instances of nature polluted or destroyed.
Later in life, that experience can come through formal education, or jobs and board appointments with environmental responsibilities.
Business training can help managers identify opportunities
Educational background also makes a difference in how managers approach environmental issues. For example, CEOs with MBA degrees are more open-minded about sustainability topics and are more likely to engage in voluntary disclosure on corporate environmental performance. By contrast, CEOs with law degrees tend to view voluntary disclosure as a risky strategy and avoid disclosure in an attempt to reduce a company’s exposure to scrutiny . CEOs with MBAs seem better at spotting the potential win-win opportunities of corporate environmental action.
Exposure to social trends increases action
In an ongoing study, we find that corporate boards with particular characteristics are more likely to resist major social trends such as appointing women to boards. Early results suggest that the age of board members matters, with older boards less likely to appoint women. Boards with companies headquartered in more conservative locations are also less open to such shifts.
Our explanation: New generations that are exposed to shifts in society – such as gender equality – incorporate such topics into their corporate strategy. By contrast, boards that have older members or are in more conservative locations seems to stick to more outdated cultural norms.
The full picture is complex
The kinds of background characteristics discussed here only partly explain why CEOs and board directors pursue sustainability agendas. Other factors, such as leadership styles  and a strong moral identity are also important.
Research hasn’t fully identified what drives leaders to do good. But our findings suggest that the traditional set of interview questions could be expanded.
Try to uncover managers’ motivations and identify where they come from. Consider asking about how and where managers grew up, their ties to the outdoors through extracurricular activities, and their involvement with non-profit organizations. Personal experience of environmental and social matters is more likely to lead to professional commitment.
This post is adapted from an original article in the European Business Review: The power of one: Leadership and corporate sustainability.
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