Six tips for leading an organisational response to the climate crisis

26 July 2023 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read
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As leaders are increasingly expected to have strong sustainability credentials, many are learning the hard way that walking the talk is easier said than done. Adam Garfunkel, managing director of sustainability consultancy Junxion Strategy, offers up six reflections for organisational leaders looking to respond to the climate crisis.

Whether campaigner, communicator or consultant, I’ve been working on sustainability and social impact for 35 years. For the past ten years I have co-led our social impact consulting firm here at Junxion, where we have guided businesses on their social purpose journeys and we have developed a number of tools and processes to support them along the way.

At the same time, I have looked more closely at how I can show up and be the most effective changemaker I can be. Here I have distilled six reflections that I think are essential to success for leaders in these powerful times, with some guiding questions to ask yourself.

Six tips for leading an organisational response to the climate crisis

Approach

When author Jim Collins was researching what made companies go from being Good to Great, his candidate list was 1,435 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500. Only eleven met his criteria for companies that elevated their performance to become enduring, great companies. Those eleven all had what he calls ‘Level 5 leadership’ in key positions, including the CEO.

Level 5 leaders model certain behaviours. For example, it’s not about what accrues to them or being the centre. Their drive and ambition is channelled outward instead, leading in the spirit of service. And they set inspiring standards rather than present an inspiring personality.

To be a great leader, you lead for the cause, the company, the work––not yourself. In short, humility can be considered the X-factor of successful leadership.

Ask yourself: What is my personal purpose? What can I facilitate as a leader? How can I support my teammates to be their best possible selves at work?.

Ambition

In October 2018, the UN published its ‘SR15’ report, which showed that maintaining a temperature rise to below 1.5°C, rather than 2°C, would be much better for people and the planet. But it was only achievable through "far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

It was a clear and unequivocal plea from the world’s leading climate scientists for much more ambition from organisations of all types.

Eleven months later, in September 2019 at the UN General Assembly in New York, the UN Principles for Responsible Banking were launched. The first principle commits signatories to “aligning our business strategy to be consistent with and contribute to individuals’ needs and society’s goals, as expressed in the UN Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals….”

Junxion created the communications strategy that saw 130 of the world’s banks sign up to this ambitious goal. Now there are over 300 signatories, representing half the world’s banking assets. Is everyone making as much progress as necessary? No. But the destination is clear.

Jim Collins talks about “ambition for the cause” and the importance of leaders knowing where they are headed. You need to be able to articulate a compelling vision of a world made better by your organisation’s work. And you must not be put off by the naysayers. Be courageous! As Steve Jobs famously said, aim “to put a dent in the universe!”

Ask yourself: Do we have a clear vision that is aspirational, actionable, clear and concise?

Activism

If you have a vision that is aligned to what the world needs, one that contributes to solving a social or environmental problem, then you can amplify it through activism on the same issue.

An HBR article, coauthored by Charmian Love from Natura, Beth Thoren of Patagonia, and Sophie Dembinski of Ecosia, argues: “Inaction is not an option. Businesses committed to being on the right side of history must advocate for policies, regulations, and laws to achieve economy-wide systemic change at the pace and scale required to achieve climate targets.”

You can choose your flavour of activism. You can protest: for example, the Big One protest in London in April 2023 was designed to be accessible to business leaders who had never attended a protest before. But that may not be for you. You can mobilise your people behind issues that matter. You can select the industry and trade bodies you join—or choose not to join. You can lobby for the change that you see is needed.

Ask yourself: What do we stand for? Where can we best use our voice? What engagement style is consistent with our brand and values?

Alliances

“With being the most trusted institution, business is obligated to join forces with the government to address challenges and map a clear vision for the future.” This was perhaps a surprising conclusion from the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Partnerships and alliances of all types work are estimated to be four times more effective than when business acts alone. The coalition that has come together to promote the Better Business Act in the UK, calling for higher standards across business, enjoys the support of more than 2,000 industry groups, businesses and civil society organisations. And this range and diversity has helped the campaign to gain the ear of government.

When creating one-to-one partnerships, we have identified five good rules for partnerships. Define your red lines; define your green lines; define mutual success; document your agreement; and refresh the partnership

Ask yourself: Who do we share interests with? What can we contribute that will best leverage the unique assets of each partner to advance our shared cause?

Accountability

True accountability means listening and responding—including listening to those voices you might have previously ignored.

It also requires a willingness to do things differently. Business leaders need to be comfortable adjusting strategy or tactics to respond to what's really happening. Particularly in the face of complex problems—by definition, problems that change as we try to solve them—we must remain agile and continue to learn and re-strategize as we go.

Sharing failures as well as successes––reporting honestly and transparently––is vital here. Both can inspire necessary improvements.

Ask yourself: To what degree are we genuinely being accountable to future generations? Are we measuring the right things in the right way to show how aligned we are with what the world needs?

Awareness

After dabbling in some cold-water swimming for several years, I have swum a couple of times a week for the past year, including for the first time swimming through the winter in the ponds on Hampstead Heath, near my home in north London. The coldest day I went in, the water was 3.1°C.

I am lucky enough to have a job where I feel I am taking action on the biggest issues facing humanity each day. And I do find hope in taking action. Nonetheless, sometimes it has been tough to keep going. But thanks to the swimming and that regular, actual immersion in nature, I have never felt so resilient. 

As leaders we need to be self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses and we need to take responsibility for developing ourselves and for modelling the right behaviours. But most important of all, we need to take responsibility for our own performance and health.

Ask yourself: How do I tend to react when the going gets tough? What has replenished me? How can I build that into a habit I do regularly?

The Six As together

Approach and Ambition: Lead with humility and set an ambition that is aligned with what the world needs.

Activism and Alliances: Know what you stand for and stand together with others, using your voice as well as your products and services to bring about that change.

Accountability and Awareness: Be thoughtful about how you assess and report on your organisational health, and build the habits to ensure your own personal wellbeing.

I have been practising some of these for longer than others but I think all of them are vital. I offer these Six As as a framework that I hope will help us all be the change the world needs.

Adam Garfunkel is one of the two owners of Junxion Strategy, a social impact consulting firm helping leaders take bold action to confront the climate emergency, champion social justice, and build meaningful, purpose-driven companies.