Cos face shortage of sustainability talent

Demand for sustainability professionals has risen dramatically, given the concerns around climate change and the transition to a green economy. This has created a talent shortage in the industry. Management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) recently conducted an analysis of Asia’s sustainability talent market. It found that the ‘head of sustainability’ role is becoming broader in scope and more senior in profile.

Khushboo Kumra, consultant at RRA, said with senior talent in sustainability becoming hard to find, compensation has gone up in the recent past to course-correct existing pay packages. “Sustainability talent in organisations is slowly witnessing an elevation in the hierarchy, primarily driven by the need to ensure accountability for results and alignment with business leaders. We have seen companies correct compensation by 15-20% as a result,” said Kumra.

Sustainability talent is “sticky” in organisations, given that initiatives in this field have a longer lead time to impact. Companies thus have to offer an attractive premium to attract talent from other organisations, said Kumra. She added that recently, RRA saw the compensation of a chief sustainability officer increase 55-60% for the earlier mentioned reasons.

ITC’s corporate HR head Amitav Mukherji said, “Given the fact that this (sustainability) is a key focus area for the company, we have recruited professionals in this space with competitive compensation benchmarked to industry standards.” ITC recently appointed a chief sustainability officer (CSO) — Madhulika Sharma — who has joined the company after working with Tata Steel for many years.

Kumra said a large Indian steel manufacturer set up a sustainability leadership programme designed to help senior C-Suite leaders understand the complex challenges due to changing business landscapes. It also highlighted the need to embed sustainability as a way of doing business.

The CSO has quickly become a role hot in demand. This is especially the case with stakeholders such as investors, customers, employees and regulators demanding companies to be inclusive and open about their sustainability goals. The role has shifted from being purely focused on internal communication to more about delivering business goals that are intertwined with sustainability objectives.

L’Oreal India director (HR) Roshni Wadhwa said, “Today, there is an urgent need for a new type of leadership — one that makes sustainability a top priority by ensuring that all the business activities are respectful of the planetary boundaries. In the post-pandemic world, as companies build their business recovery strategies, sustainability has become the governing principle to demonstrate future-readiness, attract new investors & talent as well as build brand equity among consumers.

Many companies today are seeing a surge in sustainability activations as a response to internal as well as external stakeholders, leading to a demand for talent in this space in India as well.” Currently, the shortage of talent is observed more at the top for sustainability leaders than in the middle management, where there are still individuals shifting tracks to sustainability.

“Sustainability has become a more comprehensive topic for businesses to consider only in the recent past. Earlier, CSR (corporate social responsibility) used to be a small area of focus for companies, however, something that could not attract and retain compelling talent. With the shift in outlook, and the mandates under sustainability being more exhaustive, we have seen individuals choosing a career in sustainability more actively today,” said Kumra.

The skillsets of sustainability function leaders are changing dramatically and rapidly. Among CSOs appointed over 5 years ago, the three most common functional backgrounds were marketing/communications, legal/regulatory, and government affairs — these were more focused on elements of communication or handling regulators and a good-to-have.

However, CSOs appointed in the last 5 years come from a more diverse background and with a set of skillsets such as operations/supply chain, corporate strategy, and finance, which are more business-oriented, and hence focused on embedding sustainability into the fabric of the organisation.