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Talent Development Leader

How Sustainability Matters to Your Workforce Strategy

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The future is sustainability skills and competencies.

Sustainability—in recent years, that has become a buzzword and part of everyone’s vocabulary, from corporations to consumers. Sustainability is the idea that society can meet human needs now and in the future while conserving and enhancing the natural environment. In other words, how we live today will affect our future.


Often the term is used to refer to environmental impact, but sustainability addresses the need to enable all people—including future generations—to realize their potential and improve their quality of life. That is why sustainability and well-being go hand-in-hand.

There are many credible sources with definitions of sustainability. From my standpoint, sustainability in business is defined as an organization’s capacity to ensure long-term attainment of its business goals and improve shareholder value by incorporating economic, environmental, and social possibilities into its business strategy. Sustainability in a talent management context refers to organizations nurturing their future leaders, managers, and employees.

From digital to sustainable

As an HR professional, I have often heard the phrase “Every job is a digital job.” That notion has generally steered companies to place an increasing emphasis on developing employees’ digital skills and capabilities in everything from basic computer literacy to information security to data analytics.

Like digital skills, sustainability skills and jobs will be the next area companies are expected to invest in. That includes a variety of capabilities such as diversity and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, green building, sustainability reporting, supply chain management, and carbon footprinting.

In 2015, UN member states adopted 17 sustainable development goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which set out a 15-year plan to achieve the goals. The SDGs address the global challenges society faces, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

While the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone everywhere, they are relevant to organizations and can influence how companies and talent development look at sustainability and its relation to business.

The workplace connection

Sustainability is likewise a critical element of workforce strategy. Organizations that truly care about sustainability recognize the tremendous impact their practices can have. They understand the importance of implementing long-term sustainable practices now to ensure business success well into the future.

As SDGs are increasingly linked to opportunities and risks driven by environmental and social trends, skills for sustainable development are vital for business leadership; innovation; and a productive, adaptable workforce. Companies can gain a competitive advantage by equipping employees with the necessary skills and knowledge to make the most of the opportunities ahead.

Further, part of a company’s long-term success depends on its ability to draw and retain diverse talent and engage employees who care about where their company stands on such issues. A variety of sources—including Robert Half, DiversityInc, and Modern Diplomacy—have described the importance employees place on sustainability.

For example, job seekers in pursuit of next-level cultural alignment desire employment with companies that have made tackling sustainability issues part of their culture and business strategy. Further, today’s employees want to derive satisfaction from their job by knowing that they are making a difference.

That difference can be in believing they have a voice that genuinely influences the company’s direction and success, but more frequently it refers to the idea of social enterprise and making a difference in others’ lives. Job seekers are astute enough to also acknowledge that inclusive leaders possess higher cultural intelligence to embrace diversity.

To improve an organization’s environmental footprint, leaders need to effectively engage diverse stakeholders, externally and internally. When an organization is tackling its sustainability agenda, workforce experiences don’t happen in isolation.

We all live in a community that is a functional part of larger interconnected society. It has never been more important for today’s talent to see they are joining an organization that understands how to not only attract but help diverse teams thrive and possess cultural intelligence to succeed in their goals.

As society rapidly transitions the way it works, employers must identify and tackle the integrated qualities of sustainability or risk losing out on the value-driven future workforce. This is where talent development leaders come in.

Invest in the workforce

Talent development plays a multifaceted role in sustainability. It has a unique opportunity to address societal challenges and grow the next generation of social leaders through investment in skill development and intellectual capital.

To ensure pro-sustainability outcomes, the talent development function must seek to influence not only learners’ actions but also decision makers’ actions to ensure that they have the long-term interests of sustainable goals in mind.

There is no single model of talent development for sustainability, nor should there be. Organizations and institutions should tailor strategies to their business goals, purpose, and values as well as their size, scope, demographics, economic and social circumstances, and geographic locations.

Talent development can take place in formal, informal, and other settings. And sustainability credentials are available that can help individuals gain expertise in this field, such as the Sustainability Excellence Associate from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, Certified Climate Change Professional from the Association of Climate Change Officers, and the LEED Green Associate from the US Green Building Council. In addition, Columbia University offers a sustainable finance program.

Whichever approach you and your organization take, keep these factors in mind.

Pair training and sustainability. Education and training in any organization should equip all people with transformational skills that emphasize cognitive flexibility, the need for trial and error, an openness to change, and support for lifelong learning. Education most supports sustainability when it encourages people to seek critical information, embrace innovation, and identify where change is needed—all with people’s and the planet’s well-being in mind. These new skills are becoming life skills to sustain in an ever-changing world, requiring every talent development function to refocus their offerings.

Be inclusive. Sustainable development also promotes the value of diversity and respect for different viewpoints. Education and lifelong learning can play a major role in the transformation toward more inclusive societies. Not only does education shape values, behavior, and worldviews, it also contributes to developing competencies, skills, concepts, and tools that people can use to learn or unlearn unconscious bias and build resilience in the face of today’s polarized worldview.

Factor in reskilling. Many of the SDGs intersect with L&D and reskilling the workforce. Work on reskilling in particular can be seen as a continuity of prior education. Tomorrow’s workforce will require skills that they haven’t learned through their formal education. In addition, reskilling and continuous learning are often ways to reward employees and offer them a chance to progress in the organization.

Think holistically. Talent sustainability is an organization’s ability to continuously attract, develop, and retain people with the capabilities and commitment needed for current and future organizational success. The transfer and development of intellectual capital has become a key area of competitive advantage and overall survival for companies.

In light of changing geo-socioeconomic dynamics, the rapid changes that globalization has brought about, the knowledge-based economy, and the technological revolution, organizations must rethink how they operate and build sustainable talent management practices. Talent development functions can support developing an employee experience ecosystem that integrates a holistic approach across learning, engagement, culture, and performance management.


Sustainability and talent development in action

At S&P Global, one of our main goals is to stay abreast of key market developments, focusing more on demonstrating real-world impacts and alignment with the SDGs.

While all the SDGs serve as a blueprint for a better, more sustainable future for the environment and society, much of S&P Global’s work primarily intersects with four goals:

  • Goal 5—gender equality
  • Goal 8—decent work and economic growth
  • Goal 12—responsible consumption and production and economic growth
  • Goal 13—climate action

For example, in April 2021, we launched the S&P Global Sustainable1 organization, which is a centralized group representing all our integrated sustainability offerings. Sustainable1 brings our resources and full product suite of benchmarking, analytics, evaluations, and indices together to provide customers with a 360-degree view to help achieve their sustainability goals.

Our Sustainable1 Knowledge Hub provides a comprehensive public resource for the markets. The tool brings together insights and thought leadership from S&P Global divisions and Sustainable1 to provide data and well-informed viewpoints on critical topics such as energy transition, climate resilience, positive impact, and sustainable finance.

In addition to aligning our work with sustainability, S&P Global is actively invested in educating staff on sustainability by embedding relevant content in their learning journey. We offer 15 interactive environmental, social, governance e-learning courses and have hosted more than 130 learning sessions that more than 2,500 employees have attended.

Investment in skill development can also link to other SDGs. For instance, S&P Global invested in and partners with programs that not only help future workers gain digital expertise and help our teams connect with the next generation of the workforce but also support Goal 5.

For example, we partner with critical nonprofit organizations, such as the New York Academy of Science’s Global STEM Alliance and Chicas en Tecnología in Argentina, to address existing skills gaps and connect underserved people, including women and girls, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ youths, with the needed skills to thrive in today’s workforce.

Our partnership with Girls Who Code is helping close the gender gap in STEM by engaging S&P Global staff and tapping company knowledge and resources to help inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing and technology skills to become change agents in their communities.

Sustainability and talent development intersect in that S&P Global wants to retrain employees to make decisions based on a different set of criteria. Historically we have asked employees to make clear, linear “if, then, therefore” decisions.

But now we are asking them to make relative and context-based decisions—for instance, working with a caterer that may cost a bit more but agrees to supply plant-based food offerings and using environmentally friendly utensils. We need to get out of the business-as-usual mold, which requires time for employees to learn and unlearn and think about how business decisions may affect the world down the road.

Although our environmental footprint is small relative to other companies, we understand that we must still do our fair share. We cannot lower our environmental footprint without employee engagement and buy-in.

We have a 2030 net-zero waste goal—employees must help us to implement smart programs and strategies unique to their locations. S&P Global also believes employees must have permission to point out those opportunities and have a path to see them acted upon.

Investment in sustainability education and culture is paramount to realizing the value of enterprise sustainability initiatives. As companies face pressure to demonstrate that they are promoting social responsibility in the workforce, widespread education and culture will be critical drivers for successful implementation of sustainability and environmental, social, and corporate governance integration.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Girish Ganesan is a strategic leader credited with driving change and building best in class teams. A creative thinker with passion for innovation in improving organizational performance, he has international experience across multiple HR disciplines including Organizational Change and Transformation. Girish has extensive global experience, having lived and worked internationally over his 19-year career.

In his current role as senior vice president, people, he leads the global human resources function across multiple countries and divisions of S&P Global including global ratings, esg/sustainable 1, digital technology services, legal, government affairs & security, and global risk assurance.

Prior to this role, Girish was the global head of diversity and inclusion and head of U.S. Talent at TD Bank Group. He was responsible for the strategy and execution of practices and programs that positioned the bank and its 90,000 employees, globally, as an inclusive organization. Girish also led end-to-end talent strategy including talent acquisition, talent management, executive development, organizational effectiveness, learning & development. Prior to TD Bank Group, he was with Manulife where he held a variety of senior positions in total rewards, shared services, and HR business consulting. His last role at Manulife included leading a multifunctional HR shared services portfolio servicing 38,000+ employees across 15 countries.

Girish was named one of 2019 Canada's Top 40 under 40 and has previously been recognized as the Top Future Leader by for three years in a row from 2016 to 2018 for outstanding work in corporate leadership. In addition, he was the recipient of Golden Globe Tiger Award for Excellence in HR Leadership in 2015 endorsed by World HRD Congress and Asian Confederation of Businesses and named HR Professional of the Year by Human Resources magazine in Singapore in 2013.

Born in New Delhi and educated in Canada and India, Girish has an honors degree in Political Science and Economics, and post-graduate education in Human Resources Management. He also holds the Canadian Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL) designation.

Girish serves as a director on the Association of Talent Development (ATD) Board as well as Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR). Previously, he served as a Director on the HR Professional Associations' Board. He is a known leader among diverse communities, mentoring newcomers, internationally trained professionals and LGBTQ2+ community members.

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