By Jody Bickel Founder, Chief Coach & CEO

Sustainability is a relatively new discipline and function within modern organizations. Most professionals can probably describe the responsibilities of CEO, CFO and COO. But ask them to describe what a sustainability leader does and you’re likely to hear crickets. And yet, as climate change continues to dominate headlines and the mindshare of millions of people, the efficacy of a sustainability leader could become just as important as any of those other titles.

For the last 20 years, I’ve watched sustainability grow in importance for numerous types of organizations: for-profit businesses, non-profits, associations, agencies, trusts and land-owner groups to name a few. But for all the emphasis on the discipline, there is no overarching and agreed-upon description of what a sustainability leader does or what they are responsible to achieve.

The people most impacted by this are sustainability leaders themselves. I’m not just referring to the Chief Sustainability Officer. I would add to this those who bear responsibility to reduce their organization’s carbon footprint and communicate outcomes to an array of stakeholders. These roles have a wide range of titles.

For nearly two decades, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with people in these roles. My singular observation is that they’ve never been under greater pressure to perform. However, I’ve also never seen a time when there has been less clarity about what they’re supposed to accomplish or how they’re supposed to achieve it.

What Is A Sustainability Leader?

A sustainability leader, broadly defined, is anyone in a leadership role who has a mandate to improve their organization’s posture toward the environment. They are often given a title, a small budget, a long list of suggestions, a part-time team and a short window in which to achieve big goals. The people who hire sustainability leaders usually don’t understand how they’ll achieve these goals. So sustainability leaders are often setting expectations and defining their role as they’re executing it. That’s a tall order.


Sustainability leaders can do great work, but if it doesn’t enhance an organization’s public reputation and standing, it might not matter

Why Sustainability Leaders Need A Coach

I believe there are five very good reasons sustainability leaders need a coach:

  1. There is often a misunderstanding of the mission.
  2. Their responsibilities are rapidly evolving.
  3. Many people are stepping into sustainability leadership for the first time.
  4. This position requires high-level collaboration.
  5. It’s lonely at the top and the runway is short.

Misunderstanding The Mission

Some sustainability leaders seem to believe that their mission is to identify, sponsor and manage initiatives that reduce their organization’s environmental footprint. On the surface, this sounds right. But there’s a problem with it. Sustainability leaders can do great work, but if it doesn’t enhance an organization’s public reputation and standing, it might not matter.

I’ve come to believe that these roles exist to enhance Social License to Operate (SLO). This is about how an organization is perceived. Are they viewed as caring about the environment? Do they make public commitments and invest in sustainability initiatives? Are they a good actor or a bad actor? Curating an organization’s SLO is a sustainability leader’s core mission.

So at least some of this is PR-related. Yet it cannot be merely performative. The initiatives must be real, rooted in good science and produce meaningful outcomes. But that alone may not be enough. Sustainability leaders also need to be good storytellers who can explain in both scientific and emotional language why their work matters. In my experience, very few people are masters of both the art and the science of sustainability. This is a major reason to bring in an experienced coach.

Rapidly Evolving Responsibilities

The strategies available to today’s sustainability leaders are rapidly evolving. Reducing waste, managing impacts and charting a course to net zero are all important goals. But figuring out how to get there and, just as importantly, how to talk about the journey, has never been more complex. For example, this Harvard Business Review article describes the exponential growth of carbon credits. Yet, carbon credits are only one tool, not the entire toolbox. To remain on the cutting edge, sustainability leaders could really use a coach to help them define which strategies are right for their organization.

First-Time Leaders

Many people stepping into sustainability leadership roles come from technical backgrounds. They may have led teams of engineers and scientists. But they may not have held this type of executive responsibility, where they need to communicate with such a diverse group of stakeholders. Depending on the size of the organization and the industry, sustainability leaders may need to communicate with up to 20 or more different stakeholder groups. Each group may have their own agenda and motives. Add regulators to this mix and it becomes pretty clear how an experienced coach could really help.

High-Level Collaboration

Resourcing is a major challenge for sustainability leaders. Most don’t have a big enough budget or team to do everything on their own. This means they are relying on influence, persuasion and borrowing of shared resources to fulfill their mission. This requires a level of collaboration that is common in the C-Suite. A been-there-done-that coach can provide crucial guidance and suggestions to empower sustainability leaders to collaborate at the senior-most level.

A Short And Lonely Runway

One of the biggest challenges, especially for first-time sustainability leaders, is the lonely nature of the job. My contention is that sustainability leaders are ultimately executives. One thing many executives sense, fairly early in their career, is that it feels like there are just as many people hoping they’ll fail as succeed. Leadership roles are usually not warm and cuddly. They’re about performance, responsibility, grueling schedules, making tough judgement calls and living with the outcomes. This is why it’s lonely at the top. Sustainability leaders really benefit from a non-judgmental coach they can bounce ideas off, someone to strategize with and provide perspective and encouragement behind closed doors.

As sustainability leadership roles evolve and as the stakes get even higher, I believe coaching will become commonplace, just like it is for C-suite roles today. The stakes really are that high.


Founder, Chief Coach & CEO

For more than 25 years, Coach Jody Bickel, Founder and CEO of Creekbank Associates, has coached sustainability leaders to achieve their most important goals. Jody is deeply passionate about empowering sustainability leaders to break-through the circumstances that hold them back from achieving their full potential. Her goal is to build strong 1-1 connections with sustainability leaders she coaches so they become even more successful than they’ve been in the past.