Wafa Jafri on the importance of diversity to the energy transition

30 September 2022 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read

Leading the energy and mobility deal strategy team at Big Four professional services firm KPMG, Wafa Jafri has long been recognised for her pioneering approach to inclusive leadership. As Cat Callen of RDW continues shining a light on female leaders in consulting, Jafri explains to her about the changing face of the energy sector, and how it is helping the drive for net zero.

How did your early life impact the route your career ended up taking?

I am one of three sisters, and it takes about five seconds of conversation for people to realise that I am the middle child! I am originally from Pakistan, grew-up in Saudi Arabia, and then moved to the UK for my undergrad and masters to read mathematics and applied mathematics, respectively. I used to be socially awkward – my father gave me a book titled “how to overcome shyness” when I was 16! – until I met my extrovert husband. We celebrated our 11th anniversary recently, and over the years he has helped me become more vocal and express my opinions, which is of course, a key part of my job and makes me the leader I am today.

Wafa Jafri, Director, KPMG

Who and what inspired you to work in the energy sector?

The financial crisis I think. Careers tend to look a lot better with the vision of hindsight. I didn’t start my career thinking this is where I would be, i.e. debating the energy transition with the C-Suite of some of the largest companies in the world. I only joined the energy sector because I couldn’t get a job at a bank. It was only after I joined the graduate programme at RWE that I fell in love with the sector and found more interesting and fun problems to solve. Whether that was designing and implementing market reform at the UK Government or solving one client issue at a time around how to navigate the energy transition – all to make decisions that will have a lasting impact for the next 10-15 years – it has all been guided by wanting to solve challenging problems.

To date, what do you feel has been one of the most impactful projects you have worked on?

I have been working with one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world recently on its energy transition strategy and execution plan.

I find it impactful for three key reasons: the impact on the client in changing its thinking on energy transition and need for acceleration has been extremely rewarding; the growth of the team – I have had the A-team on the project, from the Director to the Associate working on this. Spending time on the ground and witnessing their development over the past ten weeks has been a privilege; and overcoming my own imposter syndrome – debating the market and the company with the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world put me in a position where I was finally (after 14 years) able to use my imposter syndrome to my advantage and tell my team about it!

Overall, how do you think companies can better address diversity in the workplace?

One word – inclusion. Creating an inclusive environment where issues can be talked about openly is the only way to advance our diversity & equity ambitions. I lead KPMG’s Women in Energy Network (soon to be rebranded as Diversity in the Energy Sector), as well as the Emerging Leaders programme (targeted at retaining and promoting diverse talent in Deal Advisory), and my focus for both groups is to have an open conversation about my experiences (imposter syndrome, casual or malicious sexism, racism etc.) and create a safe environment for others to do the same.

These are sensitive topics and drive feelings of discomfort, so by creating the open environment, you can invite different opinions as well as the collective drive towards solutions.

What do you think are the most critical topics that companies are going to have to address over the next 5 years?

We are in a constant flux of change that creates challenges and opportunities for companies which requires diversity of thought to navigate through them:

First, there is the energy transition and decarbonisation of the economy. The annual total for all climate-driven natural disasters is orders of magnitude higher because extreme weather events disrupt commerce and communities, often with second and third-order effects. Companies will need to have credible net-zero plans otherwise they will be open to challenge. Execution of the plan will require partnerships with energy transition companies to ensure focus on core operations – a clear area of passion for me and my team of more than 30 people.

Then there is artificial intelligence. We have aligned on the potential for using AI to gain competitive advantage in the market. The key area of focus for companies will be to address the skills gap between the smart people who develop AI and those who understand the business. Partnerships (e.g. with universities) and reskilling will be critical to deliver success.

Mental health of the future workforce is also key. Despite unprecedented access to a global community in the digital age, levels of loneliness and perceived social isolation are potentially a huge problem for people hence the future work force. Building a sense of belonging will play an important role in promoting feelings of inclusion, direction, and purpose for employees.

Diversity & Inclusion will remain essential. D&I is no longer just a moral imperative but a business requirement. If leaders successfully drive diversity, companies will gain the ability to innovate, grow, and withstand the shocks of the coming decade.

And finally, there is funding and the use of cash. We are seeing cash disappear from the market and being replaced for businesses with new forms of funding. Many of these new methods are driven by the decentralized finance movement, in which financial services like borrowing and trading take place in a peer-to-peer network, via a public decentralized blockchain network and companies will need to decide how, if at all, they participate or integrate this into their businesses.