“I don’t believe you’re any kind of responsible leader if you aren’t thinking about how we tackle the climate crisis now. Because a last-minute save won’t work. It’s a crisis we have to get ahead of.”

This is straight talk from renowned leadership commentator Margaret Heffernan, as part of our 2022 research exploring responsible business and leadership through crisis. She’s right: the impact of climate change is already being felt by individuals and businesses, with the fallout related to extreme weather events causing pain and havoc worldwide. And without swift and decisive action in slowing global temperature increases, things are only going to get worse.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 74% of UK adults report feeling worried about climate change, so consumer — and employee — expectations of what organisations are doing to reach net zero are understandably high. One survey by sustainability charity WRAP found that 63% of the UK public think businesses should act immediately on climate change.

But when it comes to what to do, the sheer scale of the challenge can feel so overwhelming that it’s hard to look at it straight on. This is where some of the responsible business and leadership lessons learned during the pandemic can inform approaches. For example, it’s impossible for any business or institution to solve the crisis in isolation. Instead, they need to form deep partnerships across ecosystems, collaborating with others beyond the boundaries of the organisation. There’s also the need to put purpose at the heart of decision-making, for a future where there may not be a rulebook.

Embedding sustainability into your purpose

In our latest podcast episode, Sarah Kenny, Global CEO of engineering consultancy BMT, talks with Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, Dean of the University of Bristol Business School, about how centring purpose — inspired in part through the experience of leading through the pandemic — has helped BMT shift its focus, putting sustainability at the very heart of its strategy in terms of its offering for customers. Crucially, sustainability is not seen as an ‘add-on’, but is integrated into how BMT does business. And with extreme climate events already impacting every part of BMT’s geography, it’s an existential business issue as much as a moral one.

“The really big challenge for all leaders is that when you’re faced with the complexities of running a business, it would be easy to see sustainability as yet another thing on the to-do list,” says Kenny. “But it’s imperative for me as a leader that this is not optional. It’s something that has to be embedded and every single leader has to live the values that go with it… It’s something that is part of who you are and what you do.”

She acknowledges that it’s difficult for leaders to ‘walk the walk’ without it sounding like greenwashing, but examples of integrating sustainability into BMT’s way of operating include signing up to science-based targets to reach net zero by 2035, and beating a target to halve executives’ business travel.

Managing eco-anxiety

According to a YouGov poll by Friends of the Earth, 68% of people in the UK say they are struggling with climate or eco-anxiety. So, there’s a high chance it’s a very real problem for members of your workforce. It’s certainly something that Kenny recognises. “Our approach has been to find practical solutions that we can break down into smaller parts inside the business to help people along the way to deal with it,” she says in the podcast.

That ranges from offering volunteering days to transparently reporting on how the business is meeting its sustainability targets. Finding lots of small, achievable ways to make a difference can help. As the famous Mother Teresa quote goes: “Not all of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.”

Aligning your purpose and impact

Another important consideration for leaders in tackling climate change and making their actions real for all stakeholders is carefully considering the areas in which they can make the most difference. For example, there may be 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but how likely is it that your organisation, particularly if you are a small business, can really make a transformative difference across all of them? As both Kenny and Professor Hope Hailey agree, it may be more appropriate to focus on the ones that are most aligned to your purpose and where you are skilled, experienced and credible enough to make the most impact.

While governments come and go, businesses have the potential to endure much longer, leaving a more indelible mark on society and the planet. And it comes with great responsibility to make that impact a positive one. Business leaders have the opportunity to take a longer-term view, with sustainability at the heart of what they do – from tackling climate change to creating good-quality jobs and thriving communities.

For future leaders, we can only hope that this integrated, genuine and purposeful focus on sustainability becomes a non-negotiable attribute. As Professor Hope Hailey points out in the podcast: “In selection interviews, [potential] CEOs are increasingly going to be asked whether they are concerned about the environment and sustainability, what they are going to hand on to their successor, and what they are going to leave as a legacy.”

With the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, there could hardly be more important questions.

Responsible business: Leading
the way

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, the CIPD's Katie Jacobs and BMT's Sarah Kenny discuss the role of responsible business in tackling the climate crisis

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The full series

Responsible business: Leading
the way

Our thought leadership series explores key learnings on leading through crises

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About the authors

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and inaugural Dean of the University of Bristol Business School.

Veronica is mainly known for her research on trust and trustworthy leadership. For the last 30 years, Veronica has worked all over the world to deliver leadership development at the most senior levels in the private, public and third sector. Her latest research, conducted in collaboration with the CIPD, focused on responsible business and leadership through crisis. 

Katie Jacobs

Katie Jacobs was senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, where she rans the CIPD’s HR leader network for HRDs/CPOs. She is also a business journalist and writer specialising in business, workplace/HR and management/leadership issues.

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