Five leadership shifts we need to reach net zero

We live in remarkable times — the move to save people and planet is accelerating and unstoppable. Scientists, activists, commentators, artists, governments, regulators, and individuals are making themselves heard and making things happen. 

While it seems like there’s so much bad news in the world, there is also much to be thankful for: Since the end of World War II, we have made tremendous gains in incomes, wealth, literacy, and lifespans – and tremendous reductions in wars, child poverty, and hunger. As President Barack Obama has said, “If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born… you'd choose right now”.


We can transform big and fast

As the former Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, said earlier this year at a roundtable hosted by Xynteo, there is a bargain emerging. Citizens cannot be expected to support the hard work needed to transition to a new growth model if they are not brought along. In short: we need new technologies, policy, finance and jobs. Our transition needs to deliver multiple outcomes simultaneously – or it will not succeed.

While COVID has shown us the flaws of our economic model, it has also given us a hugely important lesson on the magnitude of what we can do when we want to. We have digitised, innovated, and reorganised our households, our workplaces, and the marketplace — at scale and at pace. I get the impression that we are mostly surprised by this pace. 

But history is full of examples of how quickly – and totally – socioeconomic models can change. Consider the end of feudalism; the industrial revolutions that ushered in the ages of steam, electricity, and the combustion engine; the emergence of the post-war social contract in Europe; the explosion of globalisation; and the birth of the Internet.


Five leadership shifts

My hope is that 2021 will put to death the arguments that systems change is too hard or impractical. On the contrary, it is stasis that is impractical and unnatural. 

We can transform, we can transform big, and we can transform fast. This very quickly comes down to leadership. Our mission at Xynteo  is to help world-leading companies, and their executives, to identify a new kind of growth — and the leadership it takes to succeed.

Many companies are pledging to become Net Zero by 2050 – but we need to move fast today not tomorrow, a time horizon of 30 years from now is too late. There’s an old saying in Norway: “When skating on thin ice, speed is of the essence”.

Here are five shifts we suggest as input a discussion of how we achieve meaningful action with the speed required:


1. Leaders must explore what’s next for customers and horizons as a discipline

At the Performance Theatre in Washington DC in 2009, we invited the former chairman and CEO of IBM, Louis Gerstner, to be with us. He talked about the process of turning around IBM and achieving a ten-fold increase in market capitalisation during his 10 years as CEO. He told us that is all started with customers. The investment bankers were keen to split up the company and give the money back to investors. But none of the customers asked for this. They simply wanted an IBM that listened, did what it promised – and served as a trusted partner.

There is huge power in developing an organization from the customer back. But there is more to gain by advancing “horizon scanning” as a discipline. We have been talking about black swans and disruption for decades, but our leadership practices have not caught up.

Our relentless pursuit of efficiency makes us ill-prepared. There is little excess capacity to pivot to when the unexpected hits. I think we have seen this very clearly with the pandemic

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2. Leaders need to think long term, and act now

We have no time to lose, and we know more than enough to get going. In just 10 years, Ørsted transitioned from being one of the most fossil fuel-intensive utilities in Europe to one of the most sustainable energy companies in the world, approaching two-thirds of the valuation of BP. Its leadership waited for neither 100 percent consensus – nor 100 percent certainty – before exploding into action.

As a business community, we have been good at building long-term scenario models. We often see a clear intention at the very top. We hear your exceptional leaders talk about “out of the box” doing - but then it often goes into a very unproductive coordination pattern. This leads to loss of tempo and, ultimately, opportunity.

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3. Leaders must become immensely skilled at systems collaboration

This means a sharp pivot away from the kind of leadership we have become used to: the leader who knows, controls, and coordinates it all. Leaders should instead use their positions to “host” potential partners – from all parts of the system – to collaborate on seemingly intractable problems.

Unconventional partnerships require us to create the new systems we need to serve us – from energy, food, and farming to healthcare and more. These new systems will not be built by a strong hand alone but evolved by coalitions of diverse leaders. We work with large organisations through our partnerships and coalitions such as Vikaasa, Europe Delivers, the Leadership Vanguard, and The Performance Theatre to build this type of thinking within senior leaders. And while many businesses have individuals who excel at systems thinking, reaching net zero this a core skill among all leaders.

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4. Leaders truly need to build trust and voice

Opinion polls show that public trust in governments has gone down – as trust in business has gone up. In fact, in many countries where governments are paralysed by political infighting, the public is looking to business to play a bigger role than before. They want businesses to take bold positions – and bold action – on the existential challenges we face. The same surveys show that people will reward the businesses that do.

Admittedly this goes against everything that executives were taught for generations - namely, that businesses should be neutral and never take positions that might alienate customers. But the rules have changed – and the new generation of consumers and decision-makers demand more from business.


5. Leaders need to build agility and tempo in everything

How leaders make decisions to how you respond to customers – we all know that the world is spinning faster than ever. And as the late, legendary CEO Jack Welch once said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near”.

In his book, In Search of Excellence, the management guru Tom Peter said the winning companies were those that became “responsive organisations” – the companies with “fluid structures, ad hoc groups, experimentation, skunk works, and shadow organisations.” These characteristics “turn the tables on conventional wisdom”, he said – from efficiency to responsiveness; from hierarchies to networks; from controlling to empowering; from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation; from offices and office hours to the ability to work anytime and anywhere; and from “customers and partners” to a “community”.


The most defining decade ever

The decisions we make in next five years will profoundly influence the next 500 years. We’re in a race against the clock to avoid global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees.

Senior leaders in the world’s most advanced companies know that acceleration is required to meet and exceed these challenges. And at Xynteo we stand ready to help lead the world into a future of even greater progress — and that decades from now, our grandchildren and their children will say they lived in the greatest era ever.

Contact us to discuss how we can help your organisation and leaders deliver a brighter future with planet-positive, inclusive, and long-term growth.

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