76% of CEOs and senior executives polled in a global survey conducted during the height of the 2008 financial crisis believe that it is important that senior executives have the necessary knowledge and skills to respond to trends like climate change, resource scarcity and doing business in emerging markets marked by poverty, corruption and human rights violations.

But fewer than 8% believe that these knowledge and skills are currently being developed very effectively by either their own organisations or by business schools more broadly.

There is clearly a strong demand for more and better executive education around sustainable development that is currently not being met.

The CEOs and senior executives polled in Ashridge’s research identified three broad clusters of important knowledge and skills:

  1. Context: the ability to identify relevant social and environmental trends and their business implications and understand how to factor these into strategic decision-making to respond appropriately
  2. Complexity: the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity and disagreement
  3. Connectedness: the ability to understand the actors in the wider political landscape and to engage and build effective relationships with new kinds of external partners – for different businesses this can mean regulators, competitors, NGOs or local communities

The research also sends a clear message about how best to develop these knowledge and skill sets – traditional approaches are not enough, learning facilitators need to use a broad range of learning approaches to develop the global leaders of tomorrow.

Because the issues are complex, senior executives believe the most effective learning and skills development comes through practical experience, whether the learning is on-the-job, project based, experiential or through action learning approaches. Senior executives also value learning from mentors and peers through learning networks. These learning experiences can be enhanced by structured reflection through coaching or appreciative inquiry.

Although learning approaches like conventional e-learning and lecture-style learning are less rated by executives, these are likely to still have a role where more straightforward knowledge transfer and basic awareness raising is required as part of a broader, blended learning experience. But learning programmes that rely heavily on a lecture-based format are not fit for purpose.

The research identifies examples where a number of leading companies have already taken steps to develop these kinds of knowledge and skills among their senior executives. Case examples include Unilever, IBM, Novo Nordisk, BG Group, ABN Amro and InterfaceFLOR.

The Global Leaders of Tomorrow project is part of the European Academy of Business in Society (EABIS) Corporate Knowledge and Learning Programme and has received financial support from the EABIS Founding Corporate Partners IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft, Shell and Unilever.

The project has been conducted in support of the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative and was launched at the Global Forum for Responsible Management Education at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, 4th December 2008.

The research has been led by Ashridge Business School with Case Western Reserve University, the Center for Creative Leadership, China Europe International Business School, IEDC-Bled, IESE, INSEAD, Tecnológico de Monterrey, the University of Cape Town and the University of Waikato.

To access the draft report and other materials, please visit www.ashridge.org.uk/globalleaders. Visitors to the site also have the opportunity to provide online feedback and reactions to the project leaders.


About the author

Matthew Gitscham is Director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability. He works with colleagues across the Ashridge faculty to promote thought leadership around organisational change, leadership development and sustainability. He has recently led research exploring CEO perspectives on the implications of sustainability for leadership development. This was conducted in partnership with the European Academy of Business in Society and the United Nations, and sponsored by Shell, Unilever, IBM, Johnson&Johnson and Microsoft.