Leadership Tips for Sustainability Champions

Leadership Tips for Sustainability Champions

Leadership Photo


Once you are aware of the sustainability issues, the change is under way..

It is for sure not an easy big mission.. in an ideal definition, it is one that includes having a ‘fit’ business which creates a positive environmental, social and economic value throughout its value chain.(¹)

Do you really know what this would mean for the company? Or what this would make you have as transformationary leaders – or as Sustainability Champions?

Get credible and stay credible. To be on top of this agenda, you need to demonstrate credibility as a champion of sustainability, credibility as a leader of change, and credibility as a business leader. This goes through continuous learning, building trust and having a desire to be able to help others in their own responsibilities, in other words teaming with them. This will make you not only credible but stay as so.

Where and how do you need to start?

A good first step is where you engage an internal network of others and refine the visions and cases for change with their help and insights. This can start enabling a corporate sustainability journey.

It is a tough path and assuming that you might define a path someday and assume that it will be immediately adopted by the Senior Executives one the next is most of the time, a wishful thinking.

Instead, you might want to take other paths..

Influence the influencers: A more realistic approach is to develop a healthy dialogue with cross functional executives, who can support the transformation. This effort is about changing the mindsets and this is primarily what makes it a transformation. Sustainability champions should be people who are aspired by others and trusted as ‘enablers’. This matrix structure would help to extent the impact.


Dialogue. You must be able to use dialogue to advocate for breakthrough sustainability goals and a culture of sustainability. Dialogue is not observing, telling, or asking but rather exploring each other’s assumptions to generate mutual meaning. People, especially senior executives, do not like to be told what to do. Dialogue requires the leader to inquire, listen, respectfully advocate a point of view, and propose solutions

Meet them where they are. Only very few see and know what sustainability is and how this might impact the business. Therefore you will probably face opposition from leaders, who are challenged when somebody says that they need to get out of their comfort zones and from teams, who do not know what is really for them in this new deal. Understanding and showing empathy is the key. Be very simple to talk about what this agenda is about, use terminology that is relevant to them and able to demonstrate over their data, in their own format that business cases are viable.

The journey would not be easy or even possible unless you achieve to demonstrate some bottom line benefits that senior executives would associate with. The literature of this sustainability journey should not be where only a limited number of ‘allies’ would understand but rather one that there would be a mutual understanding and further acceptance. For example, why not use asset management, where assets include social and environmental capital as well? Let’s be innovative on this..

Further, not only speaking the same language but also aligning our efforts with the company’s measurement and management systems, its recognition and reward systems, and its decision-making systems is totally crutial here. If you start working on it earlier can significantly increase commitment.

Besides practices, there will be some paradoxes in the way:

You have to do it yourself; you can’t do it alone:  Your energy, vision, courage, and optimism keep the momentum going. You sometimes be the leader, influencing networks. At some points, you are the behind-the-scenes leader, applauding and supporting other leaders who share their commitment to sustainability and expanding the ripple effect of sustainability initiatives. As sustainability champions, you are the catalysts , making the change through  others. Communication, active listening, responsibility sharing, problem solving capabilities will be critical here.

Go small to go big: How can you eat an elephant? (a metaphor from my old IBM days). Pilots do have an impact. Proof of concepts are relevant for people’s understanding. You need to be patient and take small steps initially. Maybe these pilots do not have a huge impact on the business but definitely influence people. Like ripple effects..

One person’s dream is another’s nightmare: Your actions will rule out some people’s traditional roles or power. Therefore it is important to foresee the implications of your sustainability vision for those whose support you are seeking.

Go slow to go fast: You need to make sure you communicate well and be careful about how quickly and completely you sell your sustainability vision

There will be derailers on the way. You need to make sure you avoid those:

No one likes an arrogant “know-it-all.”. You need to control your ego get in the way.

You need to handle office politics well. Just because your efforts lead to transformationary business impacts do not mean that office rules are not there.

It is also important that you not let performance in your “day job” slip as you get excited about sustainability-oriented results. Delivering on commitments do matter.

You should not try to change everything all at once. There is a limit people can stay tuned with change.

Last but not the least, Sustainability Champions enable others see the bigger picture. With a systems perspective, the interconnections are seen and key leverage points on how to transform the Company are identified. When one system ends, others start. How do sustainability initiatives in one department affect other departments? How does customers or other stakeholder’s opinions on sustainability affect your company? You need not only to push system boundaries to see interconnections but also encourage people see the bigger trends out there, which can be opportunities or threats.


–          By persuasion, not by force or authority

–          By recognizing that interpersonal communication contributes to innovation

–          By trusting and partnering with those who are ready to support you on this initiative.

–          By being determined


Leadership is a role, not a process definition or a title. Role of Sustainability Champions are very critical in this era as they thrive for the challenging transformationary effort.



Thank you: I would like to thank Bob Willard, who has inspired us with his work and experience on how to lead sustainability transformation successfully. This article uses approaches from his sharing and his book ‘The Sustainability Champions’ Guidebook’, New Publishers Society, 2009.  

About the Author /


Gülin Yücel Amerikan Robert Lisesi’ni 1988’de, Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Siyaset Bilimi ve Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nü 1992 senesinde bitirdikten sonra, 1993-1994 İngiltere Londra’daki CASS, City Üniversitesi’nden M.B.A. derecesi almıştır. İş hayatına IBM şirketinde başlamış ve yaklaşık 20 sene çalışmıştır. Perakende, sigorta, üretim, otomotiv, enerji, bankacılık olmak üzere farklı sektörlerde uzmanlık geliştirmiş, iş danışmanlığı, e-iş, CRM, ERP ve diğer büyük ölçekli hizmet projesinde çalışmıştır. IBM Küresel Hizmetler Şirketi’nin yapılandırılmasında yönetici olarak rol almıştır. Son olarak da IBM’de, 3000’in üzerinde kurumsal müşteriye hizmet veren dijital satış kanalını yönetmiştir. Sonrasında Pronet Şirketi’nde Genel Müdür olarak geçiş yapmış; 1500 üzeri çalışanı ve 150,000 üzeri müşterisi ile elektronik güvenlik alanında hizmet veren kurumun uzun vadeye yayılan değişim planını da yönetmiştir. Çalışma hayatına parallel olarak sivil toplum gönüllüğü yapan Gülin Yücel, KAGİDER (Kadın Girişimciler Derneği) bünyesinde Özyeğin Üniversitesi ile yürütülen Goldman Sachs ‘10bin Kadın’ Projesi, IFC ile başlatılan ‘Geleceğin Kadın Liderleri’ Projesi, ABD Dış İlişkiler Bakanlığı ile yapılan ‘Geleceğe Yatırım Yapın’ Projesi ve Dünya Bankası ile yapılan ‘Fırsat Eşitliği’ Projesi’ne katkı vermiştir. Ötesinde, 2015 senesinde Türkiye’de gerçekleşen C20 ve W20 toplantılarına katılmıştır. Gülin Yücel, International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) Organizasyonun çalışmalarını tamamlamıştır ve sürdürülebilirlik profesyoneli sertifikası sahibidir. 2014 senesinden bu yana sürdürülebilirlik danışmanlığı yapmakta; bu konunun gelişmesi için yazar, konuşmacı olarak farklı platformlarda destek vermektedir. Gülin Yücel, Sustineo Istanbul ve Sustineo SDG Platformlarını oluşturmanın yanı sıra, Brika Yapı A.Ş.’nin Ortağı; Koç Üniversitesi İşletme Enstitüsü yüksek lisans programlarında okutman ve Boğaziçi Üniversitesi’nde ziyaretçi okutman ; Keiretsu Forum’da melek yatırımcıdır.