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Primer: CEO Decision-Making for Sustainability

What helps shift CEO decision-making around sustainability? How can corporate change agents support this process?

This primer describes what helps shift CEO decision-making around sustainability and how corporate change agents can support this process.

It is based on a review of prior research on CEO decision-making, combined with practical experiences and insights gleaned from interviews with 84 CEOs, board members, and sustainability executives from a range of global companies.

What shapes CEO decision-making?

Personal Readiness

CEOs’ professional experiences and connections, personal experiences and connections, and the degree to which they are broad scanners of information all shape their readiness to accept that environmental and social factors should be factored into their decision-making.

The Internal and External Context 

CEOs pointed to both the internal and external contexts of the business as key constraints on their decision-making.

A ‘Gut Check’ 

CEOs mentioned three other factors that guided their decision-making. They talked about needing to demonstrate performance, wanting to be seen as a good steward of the company, and leaving a personal legacy.

What barriers prevent CEOs from prioritising sustainability?

Three answers surfaced repeatedly in discussions with CEOs.

  • I wish I could, but we have other priorities

  • I don’t see how this links directly to our business

  • I haven’t really looked into this

How can change agents support CEOs?

Change agents can try these tactics to support their CEOs and catalyse better decision-making around sustainability.

  • Help them create strong business cases

  • Create opportunities for them to experience the issues first-hand

  • Help them learn from influential peers

  • Let the business ‘fail small’

  • Create opportunities for them to make public commitments

  • Create opportunities for them to receive recognition for this work

  • Help board members be better sustainability advocates

  • Leverage the interests of key customers

How can you be a more effective sustainability change agent?

Research revealed a number of characteristics of effective sustainability change agents. By reflecting on these characteristics, sustainability change agents may be able to bolster their own effectiveness.

What next?

In addition to this primer, the main report and executive guide synthesise lessons on this topic from the direct experience of our participants. We hope their stories and our set of tools will help sustainability change agents in applying these findings in their own companies, and ultimately, catalyse better sustainability decision-making.


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