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According to a report by Accenture for the 2010 United Nations Global Compact study of chief executive officers, 93 per cent of global CEOs believe sustainability issues will be critical to the future success of their business and 96 per cent believe sustainability issues should be fully integrated into the strategy and operations of a company.

Now, a report produced by a taskforce led by Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, for Business in the Community in the UK, looks at leadership skills for a sustainable economy. In his foreword to the report, the Prince of Wales, BITC’s president, says leading businesses should “persuade business schools of the vital importance of imparting such skills to their students”. The study found that CEOs believe educating managers would be one of the key factors driving a tipping point to sustainability.

Some individual faculty and business schools have already recognised the importance of inculcating new management skills for sustainability. Yet overall, for organisations that pride themselves on spotting trends and creating break-through thinking, business schools globally appear surprisingly slow to spot the extent of the sustainability revolution and the challenges and opportunities it creates.

There are more than 10,000 business schools worldwide. Just 326 have signed up for the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education. Only 60 schools are members of the Academy for Business in Society and 40 are in the Global Responsible Leadership Initiative. Just 149 schools entered the last Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes biennial rankings.

Part of the problem is the emphasis for academic career progression on publication in three- and four-starred academic journals which can encourage incremental development of academic theory. Sustainability and corporate responsibility, by contrast, demand inter-disciplinary work, lowering the silos of traditional management disciplines; active interaction with business; and the development, real-time of management skills such as stakeholder-engagement and cross-sectoral partnership building.

But business should not give up on business schools. Instead, it should use the levers it has to promote change within business schools.

Companies need better internal join-up to ensure that corporate heads of talent development and executive learning are explicitly specifying sustainability leadership skills when buying customised executive development from business schools.

Corporate recruiters must tell careers services that sustainability mindset, behaviours and skills are expected in the MBAs they hire. Better still, recruiters should specify the kind of changed mindsets they are looking for.

Business leaders and senior managers who are engaged in organisations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and BITC will themselves frequently be business school alumni and may well be active on business school advisory councils and alumni associations and regular guest speakers in the schools.

They need to share with faculty the practical sustainability challenges they face and what is needed. They should also share their experiences about embedding sustainability, by giving access to students and researchers to produce teaching cases and longitudinal studies and discussing these issues when speaking on campus. More businesses need to join initiatives such as Eabis and support projects that advance practice and research simultaneously.

Taking sustainability more seriously has to rest with deans and schools’ executives. If they do not, other organisations will fill the void for teaching sustainability skills. As Etienne Davignon, the former vice-president of the European Commission, told the inaugural meeting of Eabis in 2002: “If business schools do not start taking responsible business seriously, companies will not lose interest in the topic. They will lose interest in the business schools.”

David Grayson is director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, UK.

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