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Stepping outside your comfort zone: the positive impact of the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership

22 October 2018 – Shameela Soobramoney, Senior Manager: Group Strategy & Sustainability at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, reflects on the impact of studying the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership and how developing a deep understanding of the sustainability agenda helped her to integrate it in a meaningful and persuasive way into her own corporate sphere of influence.

It was around twelve years ago, whilst studying for an MBA, that I first came into contact with what’s now known as ‘sustainability’ -  a term that’s very relevant in South Africa – a country with many levels of inequity. I decided to focus my thesis on inclusive growth and the role of the financial services industry. I recognised how this was going to be an emerging factor within the global business agenda and had an ambition to work as a leader on the ‘inside’ helping drive the change needed to drive a sustainable economy. Questions such as ‘How can you make this integral to business practice and raise awareness of the issues and the solutions to the problems we face?’ were forefront in my mind.

A corporate strategist needs to understand global trends and how they affect business and it was obvious how critically important it was to have a broad understanding of sustainability. In order to further my knowledge on the issues I decided to apply for CISL’s Master of Studies (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership as this was absolutely what it appeared to offer.

Understanding and flexibility

The breadth of the curriculum helped me to grasp the full spectrum of the subject and being able to study part-time offered flexibility, as I live in South Africa. This allowed me to go to Cambridge every six months for a week at a time to really focus on the course, then apply this to my work in South Africa.

I believe you can become blinkered in your own world view and sometimes need to step outside your comfort zone. In Cambridge, through my interaction with tutors and fellow students, I was able to immerse myself in different concepts and explore that global perspective. The alumni network also gave me a sounding board for ideas.

Talking the business language

I learned a tremendous amount and developed complementary skill sets that enabled me to ‘think’ like a sustainability leader. I believe that leadership factors in this field include the need to understand how business operates strategically, an ability to talk the language that business understands, backed up by robust figures for short, medium and longer term projections. 

It also had an effect on me on a personal level. I became a lot more conscious of how I was living my life and the impact my choices had on the planet. More recently, I’ve given birth to a son and that has certainly made me more aware that how we act now will impact upon future generations.

Since finishing the course, sustainability has gained further traction within the business sector although, unfortunately, that doesn’t always coincide with a change in behaviour. We are moving in the right direction and, in my experience, an increasing number of businesses are certainly discussing it at boardroom level.

At the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, for example, we have incorporated the King Codes of corporate governance, which, following their second iteration, now request the board give consideration to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. People are starting to understand that it needs to be a central part of the business model and that is a positive development. The SDGs, published after I completed the CISL course, have also focussed minds and we are now seeing companies actually report on what they are doing to take action on these goals.

Behavioural change

In South Africa, leading investors are also becoming more vocal in calling for engagement with the concept, adding yet another voice to the call for companies to adopt behavioural change. The South African Government has taken on more of a leadership role with the introduction of a Carbon Tax Bill. The existence of the National Treasury’s Sustainable Finance Working group, on which I sit, bears testament to an increased pace of change.

That’s not to say that there are no threats and barriers in the form of an entrenched short-term return focus and the instant gratification culture that drives a proportion of consumer behaviour. There is an additional danger of business becoming side tracked by populist issues, losing strategic focus on the longer-term impacts of how they operate. If you engage with the topic of sustainability in a manner that get people’s attention, that takes them ‘on a journey’ where you highlight the wider issue, you are more likely to be successful.

We also need to consider the market perspective and short-termism. As an example, when people look at their pension fund statement they read the bottom line and not many think about how sustainable the companies are in which they invest. Those are the behavioural issues we need to be tackling by increasing levels of understanding.

There are significant opportunities to integrate sustainability into business models and still make a profit. It opens the window to make a positive change economically and also helps reinforce that societal shift we need to see. Thinking short term about shareholder returns above everything else is going to cost a significant amount more in the longer-term.

Confidence and credibility

When I graduated from the two-year Master’s, I had developed a deep understanding of the sustainability agenda and felt equipped to integrate it in a meaningful and persuasive way within my own corporate sphere of influence.

Professionally, I felt more credible when explaining the rationale behind decisions and was imbued with a confidence because of this newfound, holistic view. This, combined with the breadth of knowledge I had been so keen to develop, made me able to relate this to a range of professional agendas, from marketing to mining. In the intervening years, I have used these key learnings to influence and lead on critical issues as my career path has continued to move forward.


The part-time Master's in Sustainability Leadership is designed to develop leadership capacity to tackle critical sustainability challenges, with practical assignments and a research dissertation. The course is delivered over two years via a blend of online modules and four residential weeks in Cambridge. Applications are open now for the 2019 course.

About the author

Profile pic Shameela

Shameela Soobramoney is Senior Manager: Group Strategy & Sustainability at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and has just been elected global Chair of the World Federation of Exchange’s Sustainability Working Group. She graduated from CISL’s Master of Studies (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership in 2014.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.