by Bob Leonard and David Ross
It is becoming increasingly apparent to more and more people that we must take serious steps to address our climate crisis. Many businesses are responding, but in a half-hearted way… doing the minimum that allows them to point to their sustainability or carbon reduction efforts and say, “look what good corporate citizens we are.” It isn’t enough, and, if people don’t already see through it, they soon will.
A number of organisations have proudly announced their goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 or even 2030. On the surface, that suggests they are taking a long-term view of how they will mitigate their contributions to our climate crisis. Upon closer inspection, though, it looks like window dressing (AKA green washing). It’s easy to publicly declare a goal for 10, 20 or 30 years down the road. The executives making those announcements will be retired by then. But it will be seen for what it is – a marketing tool to enhance their brand and increase short-term shareholder value. That tactic no longer suffices. Now is the time to strategize, plan and implement actions that truly benefit all stakeholders including society at large and our ecosystem.
We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. People largely distrust our institutions… including governments and corporations. They (especially the younger ones – your current and future customers) are vigilant for any signs of opacity or BS. The only way forward is to do the right thing, to walk the talk, and to be honest and forthcoming about what you’re planning, how you’re going to make it happen… and to give regular updates (even when you fail to meet your milestones).
Every leader must have a clear and realistic understanding of their company culture. Culture affects your ability to deliver on your climate promises.
A number of years ago, David did some work for a large company. He was engaged to call on his expertise to guide the company in the development and delivery of its first climate change strategy. He had been led to believe that tackling climate change was now seen as a meaningful, strategic and commercial imperative and subsequently, a strategy was needed in order to manage some political and reputational risks.
Yet, the company did not really want something of substance. They wanted to be seen to be doing something. They wanted to be able to point to a strategy document and say, “See? We care about this because we paid to develop a strategy.” But without any legislative requirements in place at the time, there was no intention to be proactive.
With a culture that placed excessive focus on complying to a bare minimum of legislative obligations; it was all about control and stability. They treated compliance as a game. If they had to comply with something, they would do the bare minimum. Indeed, the company culture actively discouraged people from taking a more proactive approach to the climate risks that they faced. The culture went as far as scapegoating those who took initiative.
David misread the situation. He expected the executive who contracted him to champion the climate change strategy he was asked to develop. That didn’t happen! The executive just wanted a strategy paper to “tick off” the task, because there was an expectation from their government minister to do so. There was never any intention to implement the strategy.
Then, David naively tried to engage influential middle managers to adopt the strategy – in the name of bottom-up implementation. Of course, in a culture where no one displayed any initiative for fear of copping an earful, that didn’t work.
Culture reveals what is truly valued.
While even influential members of an organisation’s staff may be doing all they can to champion climate action, the effectiveness of their work is contingent on what is valued and the norms (“how we do things around here”).
David realised in hindsight that he should have discerned the shared values and behaviours of the organisation and developed a strategy that took this conservative culture into consideration.
Culture dictates what is required to ensure the success of your strategy.
Your climate action strategy must have the right “fit” with your culture. A strategy that isn’t aligned with your company culture will meet with obstacles and resistance unless you call on an array of other levers such as:
To link this back to David’s example of the organisation that valued control and stability, he shouldn’t have tried to develop such an aspirational climate change strategy. And perhaps he shouldn’t have spent so much time trying to influence and persuade company executives. They just didn’t get it because while leaders create culture, culture also creates leaders.
In a compliance culture, the whole organisation valued adherence to procedures. Hence, David should have worked more with those who had responsibilities for key procedures and policies to ensure that they incorporated the strategic actions and rules of intent spelled out in the climate strategy plan. He needed to engage further with these “keepers of the compliance culture”. There would have been only incremental improvements – but they would have been accomplished because they were embedded in “how we do things around here”.
So, learn to read the culture.
Is it one of innovation and creativity? Or very ordered and stable?
Is it focused on what is happening outside your organisation? Or more insular, concerned with what is happening inside?
In an increasingly VUCA world, experiencing almost exponential change, “layers” of wicked social and environmental problems are exacerbating the challenges we face. Add to that a precipitous drop of trust in our institutions (including corporations), and the need to examine, and potentially reinvent, organisational cultures becomes obvious.
Compliance and hierarchical cultures are at risk. Adaptability, agility, transparency and resilience are all core requirements for surviving in a VUCA world – and those are qualities in short supply in command and control cultures. Those cultures should leverage key principles to effectively adapt to a rapidly changing world. Examples of the levers that can be pulled to adapt include, but are not limited to:
We can’t all be cultural experts, but we can consider the behaviours embedded in our culture that may obstruct our strategies, and adapt accordingly.