'Every organisation needs to be a university': What are the tenets of creating a net zero-ready business?

Cecilia Keating
clock • 5 min read
'Every organisation needs to be a university': What are the tenets of creating a net zero-ready business?

BusinessGreen's latest webinar saw some of UK's top corporate sustainability experts share frank insights about the challenges of embedding net zero across a business

Every organisation needs to be a university, a place of constant learning, teaching, and innovation.

This was among the top takeaways at a roundtable hosted this week by BusinessGreen in partnership with the Project Management Institute (PMI), which saw sustainability executives from a host of leading businesses share their experience of the change management processes that are starting to underpin the complex task of building a net zero organisation.

Developing an agile mindset, investing in skills development, and careful internal engagement with stakeholders across the business and supply chains were among the key issues discussed by participants, as they revealed how their organisation was transforming to deliver on climate goals.

The roundtable, which was hosted under Chatham House rules to encourage candid disclosure of the challenges and opportunities leading sustainability executives are experiencing, was attended by business leaders from Blue Chip firms operating across a range of sectors.

They spoke broadly of the need to proactively develop teams with project management skills that can help turn net zero targets into practical realities across different business divisions, with some advocating for a "hub and spoke model" where a central sustainability team works to embed climate across a company's operations by working with professionals from different business units.

"You do need the deep expertise and and make sure you have that centre that people [from across the business] can link into," one participant said. "And from there, in places where specific skills are required, like transformation skills, you can find people that have a passionate interest, and increase their skills on climate... You need that centre of deep expertise, and then you need ambassadors and champions within the different functions and areas of the business."

There was broad consensus that delivering a net zero transition requires getting all levels of a company on board - from bosses who need to be public ambassadors for a company's sustainability ambitions, to junior staff members on the front line of transforming a firm's day-to-day operations.

"Our number one priority is comms, now that we've got the targets and the framework in place," one participant said. "We're treating this as a transformation in terms of embedding the right mindset. Because we realised, if we get people's heads in the right place, some of the other stuff will be will be much easier."

Several of the speakers spoke of the difficulty of striking the right balance between planning rigorously and laying good foundations, with the need to be agile and "just get on with things", noting that the need to decarbonise was pressing. 

"If you're not careful you can rush into advanced transformational activity without the very basics laid down," one speaker reflected. "But equally, if you spent too much time on the latter, then you're going to slide into the incrementalism that we all know we should be avoiding at all costs, given that the stakes are just going up all the time."  

Developing an 'agile' mindset involves building teams with a mixed bag of skills, another speaker noted. "Every team needs people that are perfectly comfortable and adept at handling data, and getting outcomes from the handling of data as rapidly as possible," they said. "And they need people that can can work in that change management space and know how to influence and mobilise people to work and change differently."

Participants were also in agreement that delivering such skillsets would involve significant investments in workforce development. As such, they said net zero and climate commitments needed to be folded into all existing training and upskilling schemes, and could not be siloed off into a one-off programme. "A short term, one day programme is not going to fix this; it has to be embedded within your learning pathways," one participant said.

With net zero skills set to be in high demand, one business leader reflected that companies that had credible climate commitments may well win the war for talent. "If you've got authentic commitments, you can attract good people," they said.

But they also highlighted the need for companies to invest more in their sustainability teams to tap into this potential talent pool, with several participants bemoaning the fact that sustainability functions remain relatively small given the scale and importance of the tasks they are being assigned by boards.

Teams should reflect the various attributes necessary for an organisation, operation or supply chain to decarbonise, they added. "You don't want too much heavy weighting on the on the data side, because when you get into the transformational space, you need people that can really agitate and stimulate different thinking," one executive said.

Each business' journey to net zero will invariably unfold differently, depending on their size, sector, and the complexity of their supply chains. But this week's webinar made clear that many of the challenges faced by businesses looking to transform their operations and supply chains to meet climate targets are the same. Workforces up and down the country are faced with one of the biggest corporate change management challenges of all time, and it is clear there is no time to waste for companies who want to ensure they have the skills and capabilities in place to transform as quickly, efficiently and economically as possible. Few companies would currently describe themselves as fully 'net zero ready', but the appetite for getting there is obvious.

BusinessGreen's latest roundtable was hosted in association with the Project Management Institute

Want to find out more about how the net zero transition will impact your business? You can now sign up to attend the virtual Net Zero Finance Summit, which will take place live and interactive on Tuesday 29 March and will be available on demand for delegates after the event.

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