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Collaborate to deliver on net zero

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 03 Nov 2021

ICAEW member Hannah Keartland is an Independent Consultant helping values-based business leaders innovate to build a more environmentally and socially responsible business.

From working in corporate tax at Deloitte, to supporting the finance function at an international development charity, and then at Innocent Drinks, Keartland has worked across finance while supporting innovation and marketing. She then became a project manager at Cancer Research UK, and this is where collaboration truly came to the fore. 

“So often I was a bridge and could manage conversations between corporate resources and other parts of the charity” says Keartland. “I then moved into innovation. I realised that a lot of my skills and background were really relevant to innovation and how you put shape around an opportunity.”

Now, she is bringing together all that experience to make a difference to the way in which business is done, that is: sustainably, collaboratively and harnessing innovation. She is particularly interested in how you balance financial and non-financial metrics, and how you make decisions that are about more than just money, cash flow and net present value.

To collaborate, she insists, you must be able to listen and understand what the business needs. Keartland adds: “There are a lot of traditional things that accountants have done – around number-crunching and managing processes – that are going to be automated. So, the question really is: what value will accountants provide in the future and what are the skills and behaviours they will need to provide that value? It will all be about being a really good business partner.”

She continues: “When I think about the best business partners that I've worked with, they are fantastic at collaboration. Yes, they understand the numbers and, yes, they understand the processes – the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting. But what they’re really brilliant at is listening to the business, understanding what the business cares about and what it needs to know.”

A large part of this revolves around having the right data and other information to make the decisions organisations need to make. The role of the chartered accountant – working both internally and externally – becomes the presenter of data and information, and accountants will need to present that data and information in a way that will enable decisions to be made and assumptions that had been made previously to be challenged.

“Reporting on sustainability requires chartered accountants to expand the data they’re looking at – it's not just going to be the raw financials anymore. There is going to be other data and it will require people who have the skills to interpret that data. Those brilliant business partners – those chartered accountants who have got those skills – will have to add some more numbers to the mix (like a carbon footprint analysis) to support decision-making based on that broader set of information,” she says. “But there's always something about leaders having a really clear vision that enables collaboration and decision-making.”

She points out that a good leader makes it clear that every single person in the organisation has a role in helping the organisation achieve that vision. The danger, however, is that the finance function will have the year-end accounts as their vision, the human resources function may be focused on putting in place a new technology solution, the sales function will have its own targets to meet, and so on.

“Collaborative cross functional teams should all work on initiatives that ladder up to the organisation’s strategy. And within that cross functional team, even though you have different skills, you must have a shared vision and objectives. To achieve this, you need to understand different perspectives, and recognise that the organisation is operating really well as a team because of diverse skills, experience and background, not in spite of them,” she says. “It will also make things more challenging and that is why it is important to understand what matters to each person.”

Keartland points out that when we're tackling big problems, such as sustainability, no one can do it on their own because individuals rarely have a deep understanding of the problem in isolation. That is why we see so many cross-sector partnerships. She points to the collaboration between Diabetes UK, Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and Tesco, all coming together to help people develop healthier habits. “Together, the charities have far more impact by collaborating with Tesco – which has huge reach and impact on people's purchasing decisions – than they would individually,” she says.

She then moves on to collaboration between companies that might ordinarily compete. “If you look at the supermarket space, there are so many different sustainability challenges. For example, how do supermarkets create a net zero operation, in addition to making sure the produce that they are selling is sustainable? And then let's look at a health and social goal like reducing obesity. Now those are goals that we should be trying to tackle together, and it's not going to help for one supermarket to try to tackle obesity but not tell anybody else how they are doing it. It would make far more sense for one big supermarket to lead in each of those big areas – sustainable food, sustainable supply chain, and tackling health and social problems – innovate and share all the learnings with the rest.”

A good example of this type of collaboration comes from Innocent Drinks which has been developing a carbon neutral factory in the Netherlands. It has open sourced how this has been achieved so that its competitors can enjoy the same outcome. Innocent Drinks still gets brand recognition for being the first to achieve this success, but a far bigger impact is achieved by sharing the know-how with the whole sector.

In the end, collaboration relies heavily on leadership. “There are some leaders who are showing there is a different way of leading which is more collaborative,” she says. “These leaders recognise a much broader responsibility to the world. They look beyond their own achievements and those of the organisations they lead to a responsibility to society and the planet.”

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