A Net Zero culture for a Net Zero future

organisational culture

“Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.” 

Peter Drucker 

In my previous article about Net Zero culture I described the enormous potential energy of organisational culture, and the need to harness this in the transition to a Net Zero economy.

Organisational culture is not fixed in stone. Indeed the Covid pandemic has taught us that it is particularly ‘malleable’ when the status quo is shaken, and there is heightened uncertainty about the future.

Emerging from the worst of the pandemic, businesses should seize the opportunity to shape their cultures while they are at their most malleable. Not only to incorporate lessons from lockdown, but also to make them fit to face the challenges of a Net Zero future.

This blog is about how to make the most of this opportunity… and about some of the stumbling blocks you’ll face along the way.

What’s the point of a “Net Zero culture”?

A Net Zero culture is important for two simple reasons. One is to do with government climate change regulation. The other is to do with the survival of the business itself.

Regulation: The UK government announced during the COP26 summit that most big firms and financial institutions need to begin publishing Net Zero transition plans by 2023. Regulation like this is fast becoming the norm across industrialised nations. The stronger this regulatory pressure, the harder companies will need to scrutinise all aspects of their business, including their culture, ensuring that they all support the achievement of their Net Zero targets.

Survival in a new economic landscape: A culture that has helped a business be successful in the past is unlikely to be fit for a Net Zero future. Short-term focus, risk aversion, competition over collaboration, inflexibility, paternalistic attitudes, acting as if resources are inexhaustible and weather patterns are predictable. Do any of these ring true about your own business? These and other ‘organisational habits’ could threaten its survival as the global economy adapts to climate change and pursues Net Zero.

Five steps to orient your business culture towards Net Zero

How can you start to shape your culture into a Net Zero culture? Here are five steps to get you going.

Step One: Start at the top, but also read Step Two

It is widely accepted that genuine culture change requires leaders to be direction-setters and role models. They have the power to set new vision and priorities and establish new measures of success. 

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach*, leaders who are serious about creating a Net Zero culture in their business will need to:

  • Reframe business purpose around delivering a legacy of positive environmental and social outcomes alongside achieving commercial success. In fact, they see the two as inseparable.
  • Share honest and personal reflections with their employees about climate change, and about the need for the business to rethink practices that are no longer justifiable in view of their environmental or climate impact.
  • Demonstrate consistency and integrity – walking the talk. They are willing to be held to higher levels of accountability for their own ‘green’ behaviour – for example how often they use environmentally friendly forms of travel for company meetings.

* The Rewiring Leadership report from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership has useful insight into leadership in a Net Zero transition

Step Two: Start at the bottom too

The American futurist Alex Steffen wrote that “the climate emergency is not an issue, it is an era”. It shapes everything. It affects everyone. We are, in a very real sense, in this together.

This is why Step Two is about bringing employees along with you, right from the start.This could mean raising employee awareness of Net Zero issues through training or communications. Or making space for innovation and creativity, uncovering and then harnessing the passion and energy of employees in co-creating solutions.

Step Three: Get Really Really Collaborative

Seek out opportunities to collaborate in order to innovate. This could be with supply chain partners, funding partners, academic institutions, trade bodies, national or local governments, even with competitors. Share knowledge and learn from others in pursuit of a shared Net Zero vision. Join groups such as the We Mean Business Coalition or Race to Zero, or find similar groups that are specific to your sector.

Step Four: Identify and support the ‘green leaders’ in your business

These are not leaders because of their seniority or role, but because of their influence and passion. They can be effective change agents and champions, but all too often they feel constrained by the demands of their day job, or by a lack of support and recognition from leadership. So it’s vital to reshape their role or tweak their objectives so they can devote time to Net Zero-related projects. Give them a clear line of sight to a senior sponsor so they can share their ideas and feedback.

Step Five: Think of every job as a ‘green’ job

Even the UK Government thinks that “every UK job has the potential to be green”! A true Net Zero culture looks at all roles through a Net Zero lens. 

Here are some of the things you could see!

  • Production teams looking at ways to reduce waste and increase the quantity of reused or recycled material
  • Finance teams responding to pressure on pension schemes to have credible net zero plans
  • Risk teams assessing the impact of increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather patterns on supply chains
  • Sales and Marketing teams assessing demand for sustainable or repairable products, and responding to consumer concerns about issues such as fast fashion or excess packaging
  • HR teams reviewing recruitment strategy and Employer Brand to make sure the company can attract the talent required in a Net Zero business.

Are we just scratching the surface? 

Important as they are, I have to admit that these five steps by themselves will not transform your culture into a Net Zero culture. They will probably just scratch the surface! In fact, their most significant impact on your business culture might surprise you…

As you take these steps and start to make changes, some of the hidden features of your business culture will rise to meet you. In his widely recognised culture model, Edgar Schein calls these hidden features ‘shared basic assumptions’. These are the things people in an organisation generally believe to be true and important, about both the organisation itself and the world in which it operates.

What’s important about these assumptions is that they have an enormous but hard to detect impact on how people think, feel and act. Some of them will actually boost your business’s Net Zero efforts. Others will trip you up.

For example, you might stumble across a deep-rooted belief that the business’s only true purpose is to make money (despite fine sounding words about its social responsibility, perhaps…). Or you might uncover a belief among employees that senior leaders only act out of self-interest, which makes their words about Net Zero sound hollow and unconvincing.

Back with Drucker

Finishing where we started, with Peter Drucker’s words about culture change. We can only work with what we’ve got. This means it’s vital to know what we have! The most powerful, but usually concealed, elements of your business culture will emerge when you really try to change things.

To summarise, take these five steps, but be on the look-out for those cultural boosters and stumbling blocks hidden below the surface. Name them. Reflect on how they got there in the first place. How you handle these cultural elements could make or break your attempts to create a true Net Zero culture.

Another way to get insight into your business culture’s alignment to Net Zero is through our NetZero Culture Assessment. I’ll write more about this in a future blog, but you can find some initial information here.

Or feel free to leave your comments below.