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Developing and Managing Sustainability Talent
by Isabelle Morin
21 Jun 2017

A review of the critical competencies of sustainability leaders and the role of academic institutions to develop sustainability talent in Singapore

The Challenge of Sustainability Talent Development

As a growing number of organisations have established sustainability strategies, we have seen the emergence of a new professional within the workforce: the sustainability leader. Whether working full time or assuming this role alongside other responsibilities, sustainability leaders are required to operate across a variety of initiatives; ranging from strategy planning to marketing campaigns and multi-stakeholder engagement.  

With such high stakes and diverse responsibilities, the question we aim to answer is: what are the critical competencies of effective Sustainability Leaders? In this article, we will review an initiative developed by the Singapore Management University to improve cross-sector collaboration around sustainability.

Our next newsletter will present a series of initiatives led by companies and non-profits to develop sustainability talent within their organisation, their industry or more broadly across the region.

CSR Asia Report “Who is Getting It Done”: Key Takeaways

The CSR Asia WIGID annual report is based on a survey of over 350 sustainability professionals in Asia. This report explores the status and activities of sustainability professionals, analysing how their roles compare in Asia.

A key takeaway of our 2016 report is that CSR is becoming a full-time and more senior appointment. CSR professionals have more responsibilities and can influence strategy at more senior levels.

Limited CSR resources and a lack of leaders advocating for sustainability within the organisation remain the top challenges. In 2016, above 50% survey participants reported insufficient manpower and 28% a limited leadership support. Our 2016 report also tells us that more and more companies are recruiting CSR talent internally and externally, increasing from 68% in 2015 to 78% in 2016.

CSR professionals are willing to learn more and collaborate with their peers in other organisations.  The support that most CSR professionals need remain relevant industry research, trainings, and networking opportunities.


Sustainability Leaders: Key Responsibilities and Critical Competencies

If companies want to succeed, they must enhance their sustainability performance. To move ahead on their sustainability journey and capitalize on the business benefits of doing so, companies need sustainability-competent leaders. Looking at their main responsibilities and the challenges they are facing in their role, we can already draw some conclusions in terms of the required competencies.

To develop and attract leaders with sustainability values and capabilities, board HR and recruitment committees will also need to update position profiles and succession plans with sustainability criteria. While more boards realise the importance of effective sustainability leadership, they lack guidance on the qualities required for this new company executive.

SMU: The Tri-Sector Collaboration Initiative

Singapore Management University has already developed several programs to develop expertise, knowledge and talent in the field of sustainability. More importantly, the university is willing to help build a self-sustaining ecosystem to ensure this grows exponentially.

In 2015, member states of the United Nations adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. One of these goals is “Partnerships” - a means to achieve the other 16 ambitious and substantive goals. For the vision to be realised, diverse stakeholders need to work in solidarity: governments, the private sector, and civil society.

4 years, ago SMU launched a first-of-its-kind Master of Tri-Sector Collaboration (MTSC) programme that bridges the government, business and civil society sectors. The programme allows students to pursue “Management” in a societally-embedded sense of the word. Interdisciplinary training come from both academic faculty and professional practitioners, and students are given the opportunity to build up a regional network with peers from all three sectors.

According to SMU professor of public policy Ann Fiorini, universities continue to train people for the fast-disappearing world of separate sectors. She says: “You go to business school, you are taught a particular view of what business does. You go to public policy school, you get taught as though public policy equates with what government does. Then you get out into the real world and discover that, in fact, that's not how the real world works. “With the MTSC programme, SMU is trying to “meet a need that cannot be met fully in a traditional MBA or Master in Public Policy.”

For the MTSC, SMU has developed entirely new content, focusing on topics like executing change, metrics that measure economic, environmental and social performance, megatrends, leadership, governance in a complex world, futures skills and "how the three sectors think''. The modules have been designed by professors and practitioners based in Singapore, Europe and the US.

In 2016, the Dutch multinational DSM - who views private, public partnerships as crucial in achieving its sustainability objectives and targets - announced a partnership with SMU and established a DSM Senior Fellow in Partnership and Sustainability at the SMU through a S$200,000 grant.


The Tri-Sector Forum is SMU’s annual event organised as part of the Tri-Sector Initiative. The 3rd forum was held in May 2017 showcasing how innovative cross-sector partnerships can address emerging “Glo-cal” challenges - those that individual nations face, but are also shared across the globe.

The forum included panel discussions and presentations covering issues on inclusiveness and equity, which are core to sustainability of societies. It also featured interactive workshops conducted by the graduating cohort of MTSC participants. About 200 participants, comprising guests from various sectors attended the event held at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium.


Mindful of the need to develop a new generation of sustainability talent, the universities in Asia have already infused sustainability in their existing programs or developed new content around environmental management, social entrepreneurship or CSR.  Most universities are also working closely with the corporate sector to develop partnerships for research and program development.

There is need however to develop more initiatives that address sustainability in a more holistic way, preparing students for the challenges they will face in their role as a sustainability professional both within their own organisation and externally working with multiple stakeholders, equipping them with the right tools and relevant skills to develop successful collaborative platforms and build trust to position themselves as a leader in their field.

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