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How to build a sustainable board

Gunvor Engström has served on the boards of many different types of companies and organizations. In this article, she shares what she considers the key challenges of board work today. 

Gunvor Engström is a boardroom professional with a passion for sustainability issues. As a board member for asset management companies, she has worked with these issues for a long time from the perspective of an investor. Sustainability issues are now high on the agenda for companies in various industries, which places new demands on boards. But what skills are necessary to build a sustainable board, and how should you approach selecting members?  


How crucial is the board to a company's sustainability strategy?  

Boards have the greatest impact on sustainability initiatives. It has to start there, because the board establishes the company’s strategy and must ensure the company takes a long-term approach. If you don’t take sustainability seriously, the company’s reputation and brand can suffer tremendously.  


How do you build a sustainable board?  

As an owner, you have to ask yourself: “What do I want for my company?” Then you need to determine what skills will help get your company there. If you're serious, you will have an election committee consider the broader community, just as you would when recruiting. Look for people with integrity and courage, as well as experience in what you want to achieve.  


What kind of skills are required to build a sustainable board?  

 In fact, I’m not so sure you need specific expertise in sustainability. The most important thing is to have strategic skills and business acumen, as well as plenty of curiosity and interest in the issues. If someone on the board is particularly passionate about sustainability, that's good, but you can gain knowledge by inviting in experts to speak. That said, it is important for the board to continuously monitor sustainability issues to ensure implementation of the strategies.  

How important is diversity on the board?  

Extremely important. Try to find people who complement one another. You need similar values, but it will only work well if you aren’t identical. You need to bring in different perspectives. That isn’t easy; you will often be looking at narrow circles. We tend to spend time mainly with people who are like us. If you know each other too well and if you’re too similar, you won’t shed sufficient light on the issues. It is important to have integrity, to dare to express your views with solid arguments and reasoning.  

What do you deem crucial when considering taking a board position?  

Above all, I need to feel that I have something to offer and add to the board. This can sometimes be difficult to predict. I also want it to be an interesting business, where I can learn something new. And of course, it also matters who else is on the board, who the chairperson is and who the management and owners are. Are these people who you will want to work with?  

What would lead you to turn down a job?  

If the company doesn’t take a serious approach to the work or if it isn’t managed honestly, I will leave immediately. It is essential for my well-being for the company to be responsible. But all companies are at different stages, and if you’re at the start of the journey, you may not have had time to address sustainability issues, for example. However, it is important to have ambition and to want to take action. I also think it’s important to have an ethically sustainable and businesslike approach.