The Sustainable CEO: Leading From the Top

By Ásthildur Hjaltadóttir, Chief Regional Officer, Global Reporting Initiative
Dec 16, 2021 11:10 AM ET
woman speaking into a phone

As the dust settles following the recent COP26 climate summit, it is crucial that the global community do not let the momentum subside, and instead press ahead with implementing solutions in support of the net-zero emissions future. Strong and decisive leadership is more important than ever before – not just from governments but also from the private sector.

An important study released last month by UN Global Compact and Accenture – Climate Leadership in the Eleventh Hour – shared the perspectives of over 1,200 CEOs around the globe on how they perceived their role in climate action. It found 72% believe sustainability is an immediate priority as they deal with the fallout of COVID-19, with four-in-five agreeing that the pandemic has highlighted the need to transition to more sustainable business models. Encouragingly, over half of the CEOs (57%) are prioritizing climate action as a result, yet only 18% say policymakers have given them the clarity needed to align their actions with the 1.5 degrees pathway.

What this underlines is that, even when government policy commitments on climate change and net-zero fall short, there is an obligation – both moral and financial – for business leaders to act.

Against this backdrop, in November GRI held the third installment in our expert series on sustainable business leadership, with a session titled Leading from the top: the indispensable role of CEOs in sustainability. Bringing together a cohort of top CEOs from the Southeast Asia region, it shared perspectives on how to successfully implement business strategies that achieve the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental, social and financial performance. Outtakes from these leaders are included below.

A wakeup call for transformation

The 2021 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change torpedoed the myth that the climate crisis is a theoretical problem that may only impact future generations. Instead, it sharpened minds to the reality that we only have a six to eight year window before rising global temperatures will be unstoppable. As the UNGC-Accenture report underlined, there has also been a wakeup call for CEOs that the sustainability transformation has to start now.

According to Jurgen Coppens, Managing Director of Accenture Strategy in the ASEAN region, “CEOs that have committed early to sustainable changes to their business models will achieve a competitive advantage as a result”. He highlighted key changes such as accelerating R&D investment in climate resilient solutions, reskilling their workforce in sustainability practices, and quickly moving away from fossil fuels.

The hugely influential position of CEOs in determining business strategy means that they can be among the most effective activists for sustainability, guiding their organizations to quicken the pace of change.

Dr. Pakorn Peetathawatchai, President of The Stock Exchange of Thailand, emphasized that it is incumbent upon the CEO to ensure that “sustainability is embedded across the value chain – not just to maximize profit but also to balance people and planet to ensure sustainable business growth.”

The sustainability mindset

But what shapes a CEO’s sustainability mindset? Do they assume their posts with a sustainability agenda from day one or is it catalyzed by business events over time?

For John Ng, CEO of electricity provider YTL PowerSeraya of Singapore, it all started early on in his career, as a young boiler engineer in the 1980s. Even then, he realized that the power generation industry cannot continue to operate in ways that negatively impact the environment. When he advanced to the company’s senior management team, he ensured PowerSeraya were an early adopter to sustainability reporting through GRI, building credibility with customers and key stakeholders as a result. As he put it:

“sustainability is not something a company can run away from, it is practice that needs to be embraced”.

TG Limcaoco, President and CEO of the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), agreed on the value of reporting in advancing a company’s sustainability agenda: “Sustainability is a must. Set a goal, measure, report – what gets reported, gets done. But doing it is not enough. We have to do it fast.” Starting out with a typical financial-first mindset, he attributes his sustainability awakening to his experiences working for BPI, who have been a supporter of the Sustainable Development Goals since they were first introduced.

Communication is key

A truly sustainable CEO also recognizes and responds to the interests of all stakeholders, external and internal. TG added: “buy-in as an absolute necessity – ingrain sustainability into the strategy, make sure that everyone across the group buys into it, and present programs to ensure that investors and other constituents understand what you do.”

Jareeporn Jarukornsakul is Chair and Group CEO of WHA Corporation PCL, an integrated logistics company in Thailand. As she put it, “a sustainable CEO must be forward-looking, not just able to transform the company to adapt to the changing times but also to transform yourself as a leader.” She further explained that, ‘you can only effectively communicate with stakeholders by really listening to what they need”.

Collaborating for a sustainable future

Even when a business has a sustainably focused CEO at the helm, they need support from others to truly effect the change that is needed to secure lasting, sustainable outcomes. As Sir David Attenborough said in his address at COP26, “if working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it”.

That is why we need CEOs that are committed to transparency and accountability for the impacts their organizations have on people and planet, with greater collaboration between companies, and joint-working between governments and private sector. Business, society and the environment all stand to benefit if we work together to overcome our shared sustainability challenges.


As Chief Regional Officer, Ásthildur Hjaltadóttir oversees the work of GRI’s seven Regional Hubs as well as being responsible for the Content Development and Program Delivery teams. She has been with GRI for more than 15 years in a wide variety of roles, including previously managed GRI’s report services, training and coaching departments. Prior to GRI, Ásthildur worked in international development roles in Belgium and the Netherlands. She holds degrees in Political Science & Government, and English Language & Literature, from the University of Iceland.


Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the independent, international organization that helps businesses and other organizations take responsibility for their impacts, by providing the global common language to report those impacts. The GRI Standards, which are provided as a free public good, are the world’s most widely used sustainability reporting standards.