CEO Study: Own your impact

Originally published 10 May 2022

There has never been a more vital moment for CEOs to embrace sustainability as a core aspect of the enterprise. It’s clear that environmentally minded organizations are set up for long-term success—and the time to act is now.


Save and share  

Download report translations


Originally published 10 May 2022

37%

more CEOs in 2022 rate sustainability as a top priority, compared to 2021.

83%

of CEOs expect sustainability investments to produce improved business results in the next 5 years.

57%

of CEOs identify unclear ROI and economic benefits as a leading challenge.

We’ve reached an inflection point.

For some time, the role of business in sustainability has received steadily increasing attention from companies and their stakeholders. But over the past year, something changed for CEOs worldwide, and sustainability talk turned into action. Continued disruption—including upheaval from the pandemic—has society calling for a new approach to economic activities and business priorities.

37%

more CEOs in 2022 rate sustainability as a top priority, compared to 2021.

83%

of CEOs expect sustainability investments to produce improved business results in the next 5 years.

57%

of CEOs identify unclear ROI and economic benefits as a leading challenge.

Our latest CEO study, drawn from interviews with 3,000 CEOs worldwide, reveals sustainability’s dramatic emergence onto the mainstream corporate agenda. For a few, this ascent is validation of long-held beliefs and years of planning. For most CEOs, however, an urgency to act is encountering the reality that turning sustainability aspirations and commitments into measurable results is easier said than done.

Urgency is mounting
CEOs feel increasing pressure to act—from all manner of stakeholders, many of whom are losing patience, frustrated by what they view as all talk and no action.
Obstacles remain
Effective execution of sustainability measures requires conviction, a strong technology foundation, and open innovation.
Enterprise benefits are tangible
CEOs that successfully integrate sustainability and digital transformation report a higher average operating margin than their peers.
“It starts with the CEO. I’m totally convinced it starts at the top on climate change and on ESG. You can’t fake it, especially with your younger employees.”
Guy Cormier
Chair of the Board, President, and CEO of Desjardins Group
Listen to Guy Cormier on how sustainability dictates the future of business.
Transformational
sustainability

Transformational sustainability occurs when sustainability becomes an integral part of an organization’s business strategy. More than an initiative, sustainability becomes core to the values of the company. Leaders who embrace transformational sustainability recognize the opportunity to reshape major aspects of the enterprise. They view sustainability as a catalyst to define new business models, as well as deliver on community needs. Transformational sustainability embraces digital technologies strategically and operationally to drive sustainability outcomes while expanding economic opportunities.

Expecting results
More than 80% of CEOs say sustainability investments will drive better business results in the next 5 years.
IBM Institute for Business Value
“When I first started, it was about producing a product and generating a return for investors. Today ESG is absolutely part of everything we do, with heavy emphasis on the ‘E’ of understanding the environmental impact.”
Meg O’Neill
CEO and Managing Director, Woodside
Listen to Meg O’Neill on how petroleum is embracing sustainability.
From assessing
to transforming

If sustainability were easy, everyone would be doing it. And CEOs know achieving sustainability goals is not easy. Yet some are managing to make real progress. What is it about their methods that makes the difference? One obvious differentiator is strategy: Organizations with clearly defined sustainability strategies and committed leaders are better able to navigate changing regulations, along with stakeholder attitudes and expectations.

Asking CEOs to characterize their organizations’ sustainability investments revealed some clear distinctions across a range of priorities, actions, capabilities, and outcomes related to sustainability. 4 distinct groups of CEOs emerged, each with a characteristic sustainability approach:

Transformational
Investments reshape major aspects of the enterprise
  • Sustainability driven by purpose, open innovation, and ecosystems
  • Focus on sustainability as business opportunity
  • Hybrid cloud and technologies redefine value creation
Operational
Investments in some core/noncore business areas
  • Sustainability driven by efficiency
  • Focus on operational improvements
  • Smart technologies used to optimize discrete processes
Complying
Investments to comply with regulations and mandates
  • Sustainability driven by regulations
  • Focus on organizational reporting and compliance
  • Technology used to monitor
Assessing
No sustainability investment to date
  • Feel pressure to act around sustainability
  • Perception of sustainability as a cost
  • Technology and skills gaps identified as challenges
Begin your journey to transformational sustainability with our action guide.
Embrace personal responsibility for your organization’s sustainability agenda
  • Be proactive in the pursuit of sustainability.
  • Shape the narrative and champion a compelling sustainability opportunity for your organization.
Build and maintain your technology foundation
  • Invest in open and interoperable technologies that enable you to employ data software and innovation at scale and speed across your enterprise.
  • Create the technology and data foundation and governance for orchestration, cooperation, co-creation, agility, and informed decision making.
Engage employees and talent
  • Attract and retain purpose-driven people with the skills and domain expertise to execute.
  • Actively engage employees in the development and execution of your sustainability initiatives.
Make sustainability an enterprise-wide concern
  • Engage leaders across key functions and lines of business in a coordinated effort and insist on shared accountability.
  • Embed a sustainability mindset across core functions and drive improvement throughout the enterprise.
Seek collaboration opportunities with ecosystem partners
  • Actively build and engage your ecosystems to advance shared sustainability objectives.
  • Accelerate insights, initiatives, and impact by leveraging collective capabilities and driving open innovation.
Anticipate challenges and stay focused on outcomes
  • Define and track measures and metrics emphasizing transparency, long-term objectives, and new sources of value.
  • Think big, start small, and scale fast to show the value of sustainability and build buy-in from key stakeholders.
Embrace personal responsibility for your organization’s sustainability agenda
  • Be proactive in the pursuit of sustainability.
  • Shape the narrative and champion a compelling sustainability opportunity for your organization.
Build and maintain your technology foundation
  • Invest in open and interoperable technologies that enable you to employ data software and innovation at scale and speed across your enterprise.
  • Create the technology and data foundation and governance for orchestration, cooperation, co-creation, agility, and informed decision making.
Engage employees and talent
  • Attract and retain purpose-driven people with the skills and domain expertise to execute.
  • Actively engage employees in the development and execution of your sustainability initiatives.
Make sustainability an enterprise-wide concern
  • Engage leaders across key functions and lines of business in a coordinated effort and insist on shared accountability.
  • Embed a sustainability mindset across core functions and drive improvement throughout the enterprise.
Seek collaboration opportunities with ecosystem partners
  • Actively build and engage your ecosystems to advance shared sustainability objectives.
  • Accelerate insights, initiatives, and impact by leveraging collective capabilities and driving open innovation.
Anticipate challenges and stay focused on outcomes
  • Define and track measures and metrics emphasizing transparency, long-term objectives, and new sources of value.
  • Think big, start small, and scale fast to show the value of sustainability and build buy-in from key stakeholders.

IBM Institute for Business Value
Want to learn more about the study?
Want to learn more about the study?
Explore past C-suite studies
2022 C-suite Study reports
 
Role reports