Global executives must put climate on the agenda, but the pandemic and the economic downturn have stalled progress. Ruma Biswas is helping leaders in India move from powerlessness in her work as a climate change coach
Why do organisations need climate change coaches?
The number of businesses setting climate targets is growing at a rate of knots. With climate impact increasing and mounting pressure from insurers and financiers, it would be hard to find a multinational that hasn’t yet put climate on its agenda. Yet this places enormous pressure on leaders, who may be on board with the need to change, but exhausted by the constant level of it.
Deloitte’s 2021 Global Survey* concluded that while over 80% of executives are concerned about climate change, ambitious action has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn.
The complexity of multiple global crises is leaving many leaders overwhelmed and stuck treading water in old, increasingly outdated systems. Leaders are being asked both to adjust their company’s operations while second guessing the needs of the new paradigm in which their company will operate.
This calls for a new way of leading – and a new kind of coach.
Nig fears, bold purpose
Climate change coaching holds the principles of traditional coaching at its core, in that it moves people from a place of powerlessness and doubt, to one of inspiration and agency. Yet, to overcome the systemic disempowerment and overwhelm that this topic brings up, climate change coaching also works to scaffold systemic belief, in which we trust that others are acting even when we can’t ourselves see it happening.
The power of this kind of coaching enables our clients to access the creative problem-solving parts of their brains, which are often shut down by the feeling that ‘this problem is bigger than me’.
But we’re within this global crisis too. To become climate change coaches, we need to do our own inner work, to prevent collapsing or colluding over shared fears.
Sense of powerlessness
A client of mine is the chief operating officer of a tyre manufacturing company, who has recently taken on the responsibility of overseeing the company’s climate action, here in Asia.
The list of considerations for a company this size is immense, ranging from climate adaptation strategies relating to flash floods hitting their facilities to assessing impacts on livelihoods and workforce re-allocations.
There are also complicated supply chain and process considerations, contract renegotiations and warehousing considerations.
My client frequently slips into an overwhelming sense of powerlessness: “How do I even know I am making the ‘right’ decisions?”; “I want to retire with a good legacy. This is already beginning to look impossible”; “We are already overworked; how do we tackle this?”
While some of these feelings are linked to hard facts, what is stressful is the scarcity with which my client relates to those facts. This triggers more conflicting emotions of overwhelm, frustration, helplessness, fear, and at the same time, purpose and meaning.
All of this feels like he is stepping into an enormous, disorienting churning wheel. While crises are not new, never before has purpose conflicted so much with fear of loss (of security, of belonging, of safety) due to the systemic nature of this topic.
This conflict occurs not only within individuals, but also within teams, where this is a growing need for climate change coaches to work with the teams to fully surface all of their views, not only the ones that support the company’s agenda.
Recently, another client – a chief lending officer – and his team of direct reports in a national bank, came to me with climate change as their coaching topic. There were concerns around portfolios with significant investments in fossil fuels. They were debating whether they should consider ‘green’ parameters for loans, and whether it was up to them to lead the change in the bank.
This topic generated a lot of divisiveness and conflict between two approaches: ‘wait and watch’ versus ‘take agency now’. It is very easy for a debate like this to turn ugly, with blame and shame, or else passive aggression and virtue signalling.
As a climate change coach, handling such climate crisis discussions, it is especially important that we model the behaviours that we believe enable systems to change. We can easily get sucked into the drama or have an urge to defuse the situation and put the system back into a happy place.
The intention, however, is not to reach a ‘happy place’, but a resonant place, seeing and feeling everything and helping the team find solutions within the dissent, and a more comfortable relationship with the climate crisis and their climate action.
Relationships are at the heart of climate change coaching. We are constantly in relationships, with other humans, with the flora and fauna around us, with our jobs, religion, our belongings, even with the unknown, and while sometimes those relationships are easy and supportive, others have a dissonance around them that makes us avoidant and vent towards others.
Climate change coaching proposes that to create sustainable positive action we must create healthy relationships with all levels of the system, not just the people in it. This focus allows us to explore systemic relationships consciously and be able to have the capacity to hold space for the unknown.
It also means we can work skilfully with feelings of scarcity and overwhelm and make space for big emotions of grief, anger, love and joy, so that we can move forward together.
The risk of no change
With climate change already negatively impacting businesses, from facility damage and workforce disruption due to climate-related disasters, to reputational damage as consumers become more aware, traditional executive coaching to support leaders is no longer enough.
The climate crisis calls for new thinking from leaders and coaches about how we tackle not only the operational roadblocks but also the relational and emotional challenges that come with this territory.
There is a real risk that if organisations remain short-sighted, and continue with business-as-usual, they will always be behind the change curve with their bigger clients, while also firefighting as climate-related impacts increase.
As climate impact motivates more organisations to transform themselves, there will be an even greater need for the coaches serving them to sharpen their coaching skills to better support them as they ride the waves of climate-related change.
- Ruma Biswas along with Emily Buchanan, are coaches with Climate Change Coaches. They will be teaching the climate change coaching skills mentioned in this article in a Climate Coach training programme beginning on 8 March 2022.
- Deloitte Global survey: 2021 Climate Check: Business’ views on environmental sustainability
- Ruma Biswas is a coach with Climate Change Coaches, based in India. The Climate Change Coaches’ book, Climate Change Coaching: the power of connection to create climate action, will be published by the Open University Press in June 2022.