Climate tech alone will not save the world; the people who use it, create it and put it into action play just as crucial a role. For these projects — and the sector as a whole — to succeed, these critical elements of strong leadership are essential.
The climate-tech sector is working overtime to usher in solutions for averting climate disaster. But for these projects to achieve their intended — and arguably required — results in the face of a quickly-warming planet, bold leadership is needed to pave and navigate the path toward success.
Leadership in this field takes on many forms. Not only do you need confidence at the helm to create thriving teams that build effective products; there’s also the need for climate tech to gain trust from society as leaders providing viable, quickly scalable and highly impactful solutions to combat the climate crisis.
In my role as Chief Information and Data Officer at seed design company Inari, I am fortunate to be surrounded by numerous examples of exceptional leadership. Together, we are tackling an incredibly large challenge — developing seeds that will require much less land and natural resources to help build a more sustainable global food system. But we are also driven to do this as a team built on three essential elements: resilience, trust, and collaboration and communication. Based on my personal experience — including two decades at IBM Research and reinforced by my instructors at Smith College’s Executive Education for Women program — I fully believe these to be foundational to success in climate tech.
The climate-tech community is pushing the boundaries of science and technology to break new ground; and this type of discovery is by definition full of the unknown. As with anything new, there will always be those who are reticent to change. For widescale adoption, skepticism can be a challenging hurdle to overcome. How do you react to the pointed questions, raised eyebrows and flat-out “no”s?
In my experience, providing tangible evidence, context and direction is incredibly powerful. What are the initiatives already in action that are providing solutions to the climate crisis? What are the long-term plans that are being rolled out? What are others doing in the industry that is making a difference?
In a space such as climate tech where a lot is yet to be invented, resilience also means having an appetite to fail, learn and adjust course. After nearly two decades at the intersection of research and industry, a key lesson is that as we move forward, some steps will be sideways or even backward.
Illustrate hope and opportunity; and remind team members when ambitious goals seem out of reach that one goes far by taking incremental steps along the way. We should celebrate the near-term initiatives that get us closer to bolder goals — making concrete advances that have the potential to combine for large-scale change.
In my career building meaningful, impactful innovation, I have found that building trust — both within my teams and through establishing trusted partnerships — dramatically shortens the path to impact and increases the value of what we can create together for our customers. Establishing trust is vital in building strong teams equipped to think nimbly and rapidly to deploy life-changing technologies.
For climate-tech leaders dealing with such complex systems, we cannot go it alone. We earn trust through transparency and execution; and we give trust to build effective partnerships that are a force multiplier. The individuals coming into this field are investing their talent, education and experience into the advancement of climate tech because they are mission-driven. They care deeply about the impact of the project they’re building.
In building trust, communicate honestly and focus on creating value with your team and with partners. What will be the impact of the project in the short and long term? What are the metrics of success; and are you on track to reach those benchmarks?
Collaboration and communication
Fighting the climate crisis requires the thought power of people from across many industries — from biotech to agriculture to communications to data science and beyond. Collaboration is a must and needs to be nurtured.
I have found that traditional reward and recognition structures often stand in the way of effective cross-organizational collaboration; so, my advice is to look carefully to ensure you are appropriately effectively cultivating cross-organizational work. With so many experts with varying domain knowledge, leaders should also focus on establishing strong communications across disciplines. This will be time-consuming and perhaps painful at first; but being impatient risks a lot of confusion.
For example, I’ve been in design meetings where everyone seemed to be on the same page — only to discover afterward that we all walked away with utterly different understandings, because our vocabularies were divergent. Words that are core to the “lingua franca” of computing, biology and agriculture can have wildly different meanings. (Say the word “vector” and the gene-editing scientists in the room will think of a DNA molecule that acts as a vehicle, while the software engineers will think of a particular data structure.)
Overcoming this type of language barrier takes time; but if you do it right, the investment will pay off tenfold in the long run — with a cohesive team of innovators that together can break the status quo and rethink ingrained notions.