Environment, social outcomes and sustainability have never been more talked about than they are right now.
With the government committed to the UK being net zero by 2050 and with the “levelling up” agenda high across the country, the transport and infrastructure sectors must step up, take responsibility for their impacts and fulfil public and political expectations on societal deliverables.
It’s something that a lot of our clients have concerns about – how can we be greener, more efficient, more socially focused and ultimately more sustainable?
We caught up with three renowned leaders in sustainability; Gordon Rogers, Head of Sustainability at Yorkshire Water; Davide Stronati, Global Sustainability and Climate Change Leader at Mott MacDonald and Adam Crossley, Director of Environment at Skanska.
All three are environmental professionals who have made significant progress within their fields. Skanska UK’s ambitious targets are set to see them achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. Yorkshire Water are on target to hit net zero by 2030 and Mott MacDonald announced this week that they are the first engineering consultancy to be certified carbon neutral, globally.
We wanted to find out from them why having a Sustainability leader is so critical, and just what it takes to be successful in this field.
1. What are the benefits of having a dedicated Sustainability leader?
There are a magnitude of benefits to focusing efforts into environmental and sustainable issues.
Taking a strategy approach to sustainability will help businesses promote new ways of thinking and continually improve efficiency.
It will make the business more resilient by predicting trends that offer opportunities and proposing a fresh perspective on climate and social risks. Ones that are often less obvious to operations teams who are focused on the here and now.
And it offers various brand benefits. Adam Crossley argues that being strong in sustainable leadership “has helped Skanska to win more work and to deliver that work better.” As a regulated company, Gordon Rogers suggests, exceeding in this area “legitimises Yorkshire Water in the eyes of their customers and those who set legislations”.
Whether or not you need a dedicated leader to achieve these benefits comes down to what you want to achieve. You need be serious about whether you want someone who will help transform the organisation, whether you want to achieve efficiencies or whether you want compliance and regulation.
If you are asking for transformational change then you need a professional leader to tackle the sustainability strategy.
The world is flooded with information and specific knowledge around the green agenda. So many issues they can’t possibly be tackled at the moment by anyone else. You need a dedicated function.
Adam contends that the big challenge over the next decade is how to transition to net zero. How can you navigate that decade if you don’t have a professional to guide you?
2. How did they get where they are?
Both Davide and Gordon come from technical backgrounds, with degrees in environmental engineering and environmental science respectively. Adam on the other hand has an operational background having spent the early part of his career in operations and business support.
What was clear from speaking to all three, was that while technical knowledge is important, nothing replaces real life business experience.
Lots of environmental professionals understand the technical background and the issues, but they also need to understand how to apply this within a business setting.
So business skills are crucial to being an environmental leader and we can see this in all three of their career paths.
3. What are the main tasks of the role?
It is clear that to be an Environment & Sustainability Leader, you need to wear a lot of hats.
The role involves a lot of internal and external engagement, working across the business at all levels.
You are required to be a thought leader, shaping corporate strategy, culture and embed company objectives.
But the role isn’t just limited to strategic planning. A big part of the sustainability function is reporting back to investors and the board. This means integrating with the finance teams to present coherent business plans and reports which justify the actions.
Finally, a sustainability leader needs to be able to ensure environmental compliance on all business activities and projects. No small task within the infrastructure and built environment sectors.
4. What competencies and qualities are needed to succeed in the role?
As said before, technical understanding is obviously important – if you want someone to drive a carbon and energy programme then you need someone who understands how energy works.
But arguably more important are the transferable personable skills. You don’t need to come from an environmental background to succeed in this line of work.
Open mindedness, curiosity, pragmatism and emotional intelligence are key competencies to look for when searching for your Sustainability leader.
This individual will receive a lot of pushback from clients and colleagues and so they must be able to verbally present and make a coherent argument without alienating themselves. They need to be comfortable breaking the mould and guiding the business in ways that it wouldn’t naturally go.
And ultimately, they must be a strategic thinker and stand back from the nitty gritty, providing a fresh perspective with clarity and structure.
5. What can be done to push sustainability up the agenda?
All three professionals had some really insightful ideas into how we can push sustainability up the agenda.
Davide Stronati: As of right now it is a matter of delivering. It is already quite high up on the agenda, what we need to do is capture it and spread it. Make sense of these issues for our own organisations and capture the value that we deliver.
This will in turn persuade more organisations to embrace sustainability.
Gordon Rogers: There are three specific ways we can do this:
- Make the case, use external events globally and locally to your advantage.
- Mould to the business you are in. Use their language and culture highlighting their risks and opportunities back at them in a way that resonates with the business rather than from a righteous sustainability standpoint which doesn’t tend to get you very far.
- Both from the standpoint of leading by example, and in challenging and engaging leadership. While there are less and less sceptics these days, you need to focus on those who don’t necessarily make the time for sustainability and get them on board with the agenda.
Adam Crossley: Boards of businesses need to ensure that their CEO’s value sustainability as part of the business mix. One of the benefits I have is that the CEO of Skanksa puts carbon, climate and the environment on the agenda. And once it’s on the agenda, senior leaders will talk about it and things get done.
If the CEO doesn’t value it, it remains within the sustainability function and it isn’t embedded in the business.
Boards need to make sure that the CEO they appoint is of the same view.
Massive thanks to Davide, Gordon and Adam for their insights into sustainability and just how critical the function is to companies within transport and infrastructure.