How To Optimize Your Performance as a Sustainability Executive


By Jody Bickel Founder, Chief Coach & CEO

Sustainability roles are proliferating globally and the individuals serving in these positions are often functioning as de facto senior executives. Yet, in my experience, far too few sustainability leaders actually see themselves as a senior executive. Very few view themselves as someone imbued with the same level of influence and responsibility as C-Suite leaders like CEO, CFO and COO. Yet, after coaching dozens of sustainability leaders for many years, I’m left with one overarching impression. They must define their role as they are executing it. About the only other type of role I’ve seen where this dynamic is in play is—you guessed it—the C-Suite.  

I have come to see this as the single best opportunity sustainability leaders have today to become even more effective in their roles. It is at once simple and yet incredibly complex because it has to do with mindset. I believe that if you come to see yourself as an executive, you will maximize your impact by an order of magnitude. It will change, even dramatically improve, the way you operate. Here are five ideas to help you optimize your performance as a sustainability leader.

Who Needs These Ideas?

Before we look at my five ideas, I’d like to describe who needs them and why. To help us understand this, I’d like to put forward a definition of what it means to be an executive. To my way of thinking, an executive is someone with broad-ranging responsibilities who is expected to produce an outcome or set of outcomes within a defined time period using existing resources.

The management consultant Peter Drucker wrote an excellent book on this topic called The Effective Executive. One of the core ideas of this book is that executives see things that others miss. An executive sees the constellation where others only see a messy starfield. Executives see order where others only see chaos. That is their gift.

But what makes an executive truly effective is their ability to help others see the constellation too and take action on it. Effective executives infect others with their vision, their ideas and the star-map they intend to follow to new heights of success. Even if they hold decision-rights and power, effective executives know that persuasion gets them much further than commands. They know that real leadership is influence, not authority.

The reason I foreground this topic is because of what I hear from time to time in my coaching sessions with sustainability leaders. They sometimes lament how little they’ve been given and yet how big the goals are that have been handed to them. Many of them have been given a small budget, a part-time team, some rather nebulous goals and then a pat on the back and a “go get ‘em tiger” speech. But figuring out what the specific priorities should be and how to get everything done with the small budget and team—that’s completely on their shoulders.



This can feel like a no-win situation, as if they have been setup for failure right from the start. I take a different perspective. I believe this is an incredible opportunity. But to realize the opportunity, you’ll probably need to change the way you see your role. If you do this, you’ll probably also change the way you operate and that’s where truly amazing things can happen. I’ve seen it firsthand. To help you make this kind of transformative change, I’d like to offer five ideas that can really help:

  1. See yourself as an executive.
  2. Get clarity about your mission.
  3. Be deliberate in your commitments.
  4. Understand your limits.
  5. Apply your resources carefully.

See Yourself As An Executive

To be even more effective as a sustainability leader, I recommend that you first come to see yourself as an executive. What this means, ultimately, is that your focus is not on science or initiatives or resources or even processes. It’s also not on titles or team size or hierarchies. Your entire focus is on outcomes. It’s about results and what it takes to produce them. That is how your effectiveness will be evaluated.

This change of focus can be a sizable leap for certain sustainability leaders, especially those who are coming into the role from technical backgrounds. They may never have had as much responsibility as they now have. That can feel really daunting. The same is often true for those coming from degree programs in general sustainability who have not yet held executive-level responsibility.

One of the biggest challenges for sustainability leaders is to produce meaningful organizational change. Most organizations, indeed most people, don’t like change. And yet, that’s why your role exists. You must produce the kind of change that proves to the world that your organization cares about the natural environment and is committed to being a good neighbor.

It is highly unlikely that anyone at your organization will tell you how to achieve this. Yet, you will be held accountable to achieve it. That’s the rub. It’s on you to figure out how to make organizational change without anyone giving you a step-by-step guide, maybe even while they resist your ideas. In my experience, only someone with an executive-level mindset will have the tenacity to ford those waters.

Get Clarity About Your Mission

To be effective as a sustainability leader, it is essential that you have clarity about the mission. What are you trying to achieve and why does it matter to your organization and to the planet? What outcomes must you achieve for all stakeholders to agree that it was worth the effort and money? There are two very good reasons that sustainability leaders should do this early in their executive service:

  1. It serves as a true north measuring stick for all initiatives and programs.
  2. It empowers you to enroll others (especially other senior leaders) in the mission and that is essential because you can’t achieve it all by yourself.

I recommend that you lead a process internally to get this clarity and to get buy-in to the mission. When I help my clients do this, we engage in a three-phase process: 

  1. We identify stakeholders whose input can help shape the mission.
  2. We interview the stakeholders and ask for their input. We then come up with a practical statement of desired outcomes.
  3. We share the statement of outcomes with stakeholders and listen to their feedback to make refinements where necessary.

This approach creates buy-in and alignment with people you will likely need to lean on to achieve your mission. I cannot tell you what your statement of outcomes or even your mission should be. But I can recommend an idea that will faithfully guide the entire process: social license to operate. This is about your organization’s reputation both externally, in the eyes of the public, and internally, in the eyes of team members. No other executive owns the responsibility to curate an organization’s social license to operate as much as the sustainability leader.

Be Deliberate In Your Commitments

To be effective as a sustainability leader, I recommend that you make deliberate commitments publicly. This is essential to curating social license to operate. But this is also a double-edged sword. External and internal stakeholders are constantly evaluating if an organization’s promises made are promises kept.

It’s important to carefully and deliberately pick these public commitments because the performance runway is often short. You’ll only get so much time to prove that your efforts are moving your organization toward the fulfillment of the promises. Sustainability leaders and their organizations are judged by achieving promises, not by making promises.

Understand Your Limits

To become an even more effective sustainability leader, it’s important to understand your limits. Why? Because you have to rely on other people to fulfill the mission. You simply cannot do everything yourself. I believe there are three essential judgment calls sustainability leaders need to make fairly early into their tenure:

  1. How quickly can organizational change actually take place? What is realistic versus aspirational?
  2. What is the best and highest use of my time and energy to help drive that change?
  3. Who do I need to partner with, internally and externally, to increase the odds of achieving the mission?

All three of these questions assume healthy and realistic limits. First, organizations only change just so fast and if you push too hard, you’ll likely strain relationships. This hurts your chances of making lasting change over time. Second, you only have so many hours in the day. But more than that, you only have so much energy. Deciphering where to put your time and energy is crucial. Trying to do too much is a recipe for failure and burn-out. Third, knowing who to partner with increases the odds that you’ll engage people who can be force-multipliers of your efforts. This is one of the best ways for small teams to make a big impact.

Apply Your Resources Carefully

To be even more effective as a sustainability leader, I recommend that you carefully assess where to apply your resources. One of the first steps in this process is to list your resources. When I help my clients with this exercise, they often list things like time, budget, team members and skill-sets. These are what I would describe as “hard” resources. They are countable assets that are finite in nature. 

But there are other resources to consider too. I think of these as “soft” resources because they’re often not countable. Yet they may be the most important assets you have at your disposal. Here are four resources to carefully consider:

  1. Influence. This is about being able to suggest ideas, approaches or even initiatives that other people then consider. This is about people listening to you and taking your counsel seriously.
  2. Political capital. This is about your standing within the overall organization. Are you seen as a leader, someone who can be trusted and someone who’s company people enjoy? Political capital can get you into rooms that are closed off to others.
  3. Confidence from others. This is an especially important resource to manage in the early going. A sustainability leader who has great ideas but who can’t seem to get them executed will quickly lose the confidence of others, especially those in the C-Suite. Curating other people’s confidence in you is essential to succeeding in your role.
  4. Relationships. The old saying is that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Relationships are one of your most important resources. I try to help my clients expand their sphere of relationships because I know that sooner or later, they’ll need these people.

Final Thoughts

Given the proliferation of sustainability roles today, I believe it’s important for sustainability leaders to see themselves as an executive. This is primarily about mindset. The five ideas I’ve put forward here have been instrumental in helping my clients. I’m confident they’ll help you too. If you have questions about anything I’ve said in this thought piece, please know my door is open. Let’s talk.


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.