A Case of Sustainability in Leadership: Financial Services
How Amrop secured a business-driven Head of Sustainability for a leading financial services group.
The financial services industry plays a pivotal role in the economy and society: facilitating access to capital and spending. Its activities deeply affect the lives of people, businesses, government and civic institutions. When it comes to sustainability, financial services has a key role to play, and the journey has just started.
How does it all play out in practice? Read on to discover how Amrop helped a major financial services player secure a sustainability leader with business acumen, domain expertise and passion.
In a 2013 landmark declaration1 defining the financial sector’s role and tasks, the WEF warned that trust between the industry, its clients, regulators, investors and society remained fragile. All stakeholders must work together to ensure the financial system fulfilled its economic and societal role, it signaled.
Nearly ten years on, the Edelman Trust Barometer2 reported that trust of the financial sector stands at only 56% among the general population. This puts it close to the bottom of all the sectors surveyed (only social media scores lower).
Nowhere is the imperative for sustainability stronger than in this wide-spectrum industry, and its leaders are striving to raise the bar.
But as a recent Amrop report3 reveals, any firm seeking to improve its sustainability performance faces an array of difficulties and strategic tensions. The Chief Sustainability Officer (or equivalent) has become a hub. And financial services leaders face a particularly stringent regulatory and ESG reporting environment.
A legacy organization with eyes on the horizon
Active since the mid-19th century, our client is a large insurance and banking group serving several million customers with an emphasis on long-term relationships. It takes a leading position on sustainability, emphasizing sustainable value creation, with long-term commitments to its owners, customers and society. Sustainable business is a core value.
The group adheres to the UN Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Action. It supports the UN Principles for Responsible Investment and the UN Principles for Responsible Banking. It also supports the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) regarding accounting for climate-related risks and opportunities (see links below). It recently launched an ambitious climate roadmap. Its activities feed the UN's 17 global sustainability goals.
The group prioritizes four strategic sustainability axes, related to customers and the way in which it conducts its own business.
“We have worked with the client for many years,” says the Amrop Partner who led the assignment team. “We recently supported them with NEDs for subsidiaries and for executive and senior specialist roles. Amrop has demonstrated an ability to operate within different functional areas such as IT, Finance, and HR. We present a team that combines an understanding of our client and their industry, with functional expertise.”
The question of reporting lines is key to designing the role profile for a sustainability head, and no simple matter. The position was once typically part of the communications or HR team or a lone silo, but it is changing. In the case of Amrop’s client, the role had moved several years ago from Corporate Communications to Asset Management. The decision was made that the function should keep reporting into one specific business area, despite its groupwide responsibility.
The new Sustainability Head would lead a dedicated team of four people, collaborating closely with a separate team of ESG analysts.
To compensate for not being part of Executive Management Team, the Sustainability Head would also run a Sustainability Committee, composed of all the group’s business line heads (members of the Executive Management team). As such, the attention of top management is secured and the role mandate supported when it comes to driving the sustainability agenda. The Committee also ensures that the role stays plugged into the business, the organization’s long-term perspective and its ambition to be a role model within sustainability.
A further shift concerned the components of ESG. E (Environment) and G (Governance) are now running trains in many organizations. Indeed, our client’s focus is sharpening on the S (Social). Candidates would therefore be sought with experience working with the societal aspects of sustainability.
“The fact that the role was not part of the Executive Management Team would impact candidate interest – especially seniors with leadership weight.” says the lead Amrop Partner. “We had an open dialogue with the client concerning the pros and cons but in this case they confirmed that the business would be better served with sustainability as part of Asset Management.
“Our task was now to present the role in a way that would attract senior candidates. For example, we presented the Sustainability Committee and the positive reasoning behind this.
“The second argument concerned governance. Many organizations have seen a proliferation in specialist roles. This has led to an expansion in the number of people sitting on executive management teams. As a response, many are deciding as part of their governance to keep the top team compact. Our client was no exception.
“Another attraction point is that the group’s sustainability team is building (even if it will remain centrally tight, as the business ultimately owns decision-making and implementation).
“Finally, and irrespective of where it sits in the organization, this remains a high-profile leadership and change management position. It is a heavyweight role that is anchored in the business. The head of sustainability runs a strategic committee and drives change across different divisions. Even if the role holder has expertise in sustainability and regulatory frameworks, he or she must also transcend this niche.”
The Search Strategy & Process
Initial market insight: “It was critical to demonstrate Amrop’s perspectives on the candidate pool to the client, where the best candidates tend to come more from core business than group functions. Yet we still meet a bright-eyed population with a sense of wanting to save the world. This risks a disconnect between eco-warriors and the daily business. It is in the business that one builds the trust and ownership needed to generate strategically relevant action, rather than goodwill tactics.
The candidate pool is quite young; many only started to work ten years ago and have spent their whole career in ESG and sustainability. It is difficult to find individuals that can step up to being part of a management team where they will face pressure to understand and develop a firm’s business model.”
Search universe and role profile: In addition to experience and expertise within sustainability and the relevant regulations, the candidates needed to demonstrate:
- Business understanding
- Project management and stakeholder skills
Attracting the candidates: In the process, candidates sought reassurance on several factors:
- Strategic direction and ambition with regard to sustainability
- Resources to build a core team to drive implementation and assure monitoring
- Buy-in from senior management
Delivery: The client met with several candidates representing different backgrounds, perspectives on sustainability, and seniority. Personality, cultural fit and senior presence were key – most candidates were quite young.
- CLARITY: Ensure candidates understand the organization’s sustainability agenda and their potential role, with a clear view of the work and the commitment of the business to its execution
- ENGAGEMENT: Involvement of key client stakeholders in the process, including the CEO
- EQUILIBRIUM: Identify candidates who balanced business and product understanding, operations and strategy
- REASSURANCE: Answer concerns regarding the reporting lines and positioning of the role in Asset Management rather than Group Management
- EVALUATION: Conduct a rigorous leadership assessment of the candidate.
- FLEXIBILITY: The client adapted during the process: developing a view on how to structure and scope their sustainability work in function of the selected candidate. This flexibility proved a significant advantage
- FOLLOW-UP: Post-hire, check up on the candidate’s integration into the organization and new role, supporting if necessary.
Following a ten-week process, the successful candidate was recruited.
The new Head of Sustainability for Amrop’s client is an economics major with board experience. Their most recent position was as a division head of ESG for a leading corporate bank, a role successfully executed for several years, resulting in:
- Business experience
- Leadership experience
- Sustainability experience
- Business development skills
The successful candidate strongly believes that business acumen is critical to integrating sustainability into a mature organization, combining domain expertise with change management skills and a firm grasp of business dynamics. The new Sustainability Head is confident that the organization has the momentum to navigate the waves and act as a sustainability example in their industry.
Download the report
 The Role of Financial Services in Society: A Multistakeholder Compact. (2013). World Economic Forum and Oliver Wyman.
2 Edelman Trust Barometer 2022: Global Report. Trust in Financial Services Sector. 36,000 respondents across 28 countries
3 The C-suite Sustainability Struggle. (2023). Amrop
- Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI or PRI): unpri.org
- UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative: unepfi.org
- Task force on climate-related financial disclosures: (TCFD):fsb-tcfd.org
- New EU rules on corporate sustainability reporting:The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive: www finance.ec.europa.eu
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