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Beth Knight: A behavioural competency model for sustainability professionals

22 August 2016 – Successful organisational transformation relies on many variables, not least the skills and abilities of those leading the change. For those of us working in organisations to drive change for sustainability then, an important part of ensuring impact is to understand the leadership skills and abilities that are likely to be most effective.

Are they the same competencies as required in other professional or leadership roles? Are they critical to success? Do most sustainability leaders possess them already? How might they be developed and nurtured? As a sustainability professional myself, and a student on the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership, I wanted to use my dissertation research as an opportunity to explore some of these questions further. 

Of course, a single Master’s thesis will only ever be able to look at a very small part of the picture. I was particularly interested in sustainability professionals – those with a formally recognised job in sustainability.  Were there any specific behaviours and skills that such individuals exhibited, which might inform our understanding of the critical competencies needed in order to be effective?

As with any piece of primary research, it always helps to start with what has already been discovered in the field. Existing academic literature suggests that sustainability leaders need a wide-ranging and divergent mix of behavioural competencies to be successful. It is argued that where individuals have more developed competencies, they are able to respond to sophisticated challenges in a way that others are not. 

I explored the work of over 70 academics over the last 15 years in this field, who used interviews and surveys to identify a range of potential competencies for those working in the sustainability space. Through observing common themes and trends, I was able to summarise these into five key competency areas, each with a sub-set of behaviours:

Competency groupings

An effective sustainability leader is someone who is…

Related behaviours


Action-biased with a passion for learning, an ability to ‘make things happen’ and confident in their decisions

Articulating Information

Taking Action

Developing Expertise

Making Decisions


Inter-disciplinary understanding, strategic in their outlook with an ability to envisage the future and persevere through difficulties

Developing Strategies

Pursuing Goals

Providing Insights

Exploring Possibilities


Determined to act with integrity, has an ethical approach and builds trust-based relationships

Upholding Standards

Interacting with People

Empowering Individuals

Conveying Self-Confidence


Willing to challenge established views, seize opportunities and embrace change with optimism

Convincing People

Embracing Change

Seizing Opportunities

Generating Ideas

Challenging Ideas

Thinking Positively


Understands the motivations of others, caring attitude and a collaborative approach that engenders trust in their leadership

Understanding People

Team Working

Directing People

Establishing Rapport


I found it very helpful to understand what the academic community – based on extensive data from the field – were saying about the competencies required. Yet I wanted to test whether these competencies were evident in practice, or were there other behaviours that were also (or more) prominent amongst sustainability professionals.

One of the challenges with collecting such data is that the competencies that individuals believe to be important are not necessarily the same as those they believe they possess themselves. In turn, these are not necessarily the same as those they actually do possess, and these are not automatically the same as those that do in fact have impact

The literature had established which competencies were believed to be important. This research wanted to look at what competencies sustainability professionals showed in practice. 

There are a number of established psychometric approaches that demonstrate a good correlation between people’s self-reporting and their actual behaviour in the workplace. Wave Professional Styles has a particularly positive reputation, due to a number of safeguards, including the use of peers to validate each respondent’s results. 

Whilst the questionnaire would not be able to confirm the actual impact of various competencies, it would be able to reveal the competencies that respondents believed they possessed, and through peer validation, would provide a very strong indicator of what competencies they were actually demonstrating in the workplace. 

The questionnaire was designed to include both the ‘sustainability’ competencies identified through the literature review, and a range of additional leadership competencies that were part of the generic Wave questionnaire. It was used with 97 sustainability professionals, and the results showed a number of very interesting findings. 

A number of the competencies identified in the literature appeared to be prominent in practice, such as “Developing Expertise”, “Establishing Rapport”, “Generating Ideas”, “Challenging Ideas”, “Interacting with People” and “Exploring Possibilities”.

One of the main insights though was that there were some competencies that did not feature as strongly, for example the overall categories of “Ethical Orientation” and “Visionary Thinker” compared with “Results Driven”, “Change Agent” and “Inclusive Operator”. 

Even within the latter categories, there were specific behaviours that did not feature strongly.

“Taking Action” for instance was not prominent within the sample. This might indicate that, although there is some common understanding that whilst there should be a bias for action, this was not a behaviour typically exhibited by those in such roles. 

“Directing People” was also much less prominent. This could be explained by the emerging theory that sustainability leaders should strive to embed sustainability within business, as opposed to taking direct control and independent accountability (Visser and Crane, 2010). It could also be an indication that sustainability leaders are more effective when operating via personal influence and gravitas, as opposed to a mandated sense of authority (Trevino et al, 2000).

There were also some additional leadership competencies that were prominent in the results, which were not evident in the existing literature, for example, “Impressing People”, which Saville et al (2012) describe as the need to attract attention, promote personal achievements, and gain recognition. “Thinking Positively” was also singled out, which Morton and Grayson (2009) argue has limited evidence in previous academic findings and may have been under-valued as a result.

In summary, the results led to the development of a new framework based on the top ten reported competencies exhibited by sustainability professionals.  

Click for a larger pdf.

No single framework can adequately represent the complexity of this area, but this research revealed some unexpected findings around sustainability skills and abilities that might have been previously overlooked.

An exciting area of further research would be to examine whether and how such competencies have impact on the ground when it comes to sustainability outcomes. The questionnaire also indicated some indicative trends regarding the impact of gender, sector and formal qualifications, all of which I hope will be pursued through further studies. 

The research has only served to heighten my interest in this area, and my own personal commitment to enhancing my own development as a sustainability professional. See the executive report for further analysis of the research findings.  


17 January 2018, 16.00-17.00

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2018 intake workshop dates

Workshop 1: 16–22 September 2018 
Workshop 2: 31 March–6 April 2019
Workshop 3: 1–7 September 2019   
Workshop 4: 29 March–4 April 2020

2017 intake Workshop dates

Workshop 1: 2–8 September 2017
Workshop 2: 8–14 April 2018
Workshop 3: 2–8 September 2018   
Workshop 4: 31 March–6 April 2019

2016 intake Workshop dates

Workshop 1: 18–24 September 2016
Workshop 2: 26 March–1 April 2017
Workshop 3: 30 July–5 August 2017
Workshop 4: 8–14 April 2018