Climate adaptation expert Digby Hall on shifting the needle at work

From engaging the climate denier to making a business case, climate adaptation expert Digby Hall shares his top tips for burgeoning climate intrapreneurs.

Sarah Smith
March 6, 2024
3 min read
digby hall climate adaptation specialist

Digby Hall has spent 30 years pushing for change. Growing up in the Adelaide foothills, he developed a deep connection with nature from an early age –  a passion that shaped his worldview and transformed his chosen career path in architecture. “While I was studying in the early 90s, I took an elective called ‘ecological architecture’, which sparked my passion for sustainable design,” he reflects. “The concept that human and planetary health are so deeply linked to the way we plan and design buildings and cities was profound.”

Since then he has spent his working life (and a PhD) trying to shift the needle on climate and make a tangible difference. Working on sustainability and more recently food security (you may have seen his TED Talk on this very topic), he helps organisations plot their path towards climate adaptation – and few could be better placed to share advice on how to drive change inside businesses. 

1. You are not alone – so start a group chat

If you work for a big organisation, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who cares. But, you are not alone! “There are more good guys than bad guys, but too often we don’t speak to each other,” says Digby. “I would recommend that people just talk with each other to identify how your thinking and passion aligns.” And once you've found an appetite for climate conversations, Digby recommends making it official by starting a committee or a Friday night talks group. “As long as these sessions have a mission and direction rather than just being a talk fest, they can be so beneficial. But for this to work it’s critical that you include a manager, leader or Board member on the team.”

2. Identify the person (above you) that cares

There will always be someone further up the chain – in the executive, C-suite or boardroom – that cares as much as you. Find them and seek their help. “It's not difficult to identify who that person is, and if you can find that ally you’re really onto something,” says Digby. “It means you can ask them how to pitch an idea to the board, or inquire about what the company is really doing, or let them know that other people at the company think like you.” 

3. Demonstrate a business case

Whether you like it or not, you have to be able to demonstrate a business case. “Because if you don't have one, the board's not going to sign off on anything,” says Digby. “You’ve got to demonstrate a return based on evidence. This could be anything from how changes will assist the company in attracting and retaining talent, or how it will help pitch to a particular client group going forward – think like an owner of the business.” These days, there is always a business case to be made for climate action. 

4. Don’t lead with climate

This may seem a little counterintuitive, however getting the pitch right can be the difference between winning over sceptical management or not. “Often, when you lead with climate in a pitch to leaders, their eyes will glaze over,” says Digby. “However, if you can start with: Here are the risks to the business if we don’t act – infrastructure, governance, brand risk for greenwashing, loss of good staff – and then outline the proposed action, you will be able to keep the attention of decision makers.” Flipping the conversation like this can increase the likelihood of being taken seriously. “If you start with risk, then end on all the positive climate actions the business can take to manage this risk, then you’re going to have a more effective interaction and see results.”

5. Identify the “no person”

While there are always going to be workmates as passionate about climate as you, conversely, there is often at least one person very resistant to change. “Somewhere in the mix, there is usually a blocker,” says Digby. “They may be a climate denialist, or someone who wants to protect their middle management position, or they can't see a positive bottom line for anything to do with climate action – you will come up against individuals who are scared of change.” The best way to tackle them? “Avoid the temptation to go around them at first – instead, engage them.” suggests Digby. “Try to pinpoint where their fear comes from and find some common ground. Or use them as a litmus test to see what kind of blocks you may come up against before taking something to the board.” 

6. Don’t have too many ideas

It’s easy to get carried away once the ball is rolling, but it's important to stay focused. “A common mistake is that groups will get together and try to do too many things all at once, and they will fizzle out,” says Digby. “So, setting that big audacious goal is a must – but then have simple, easy step-by-step targets to get you there, and absolutely have some early quick wins to demonstrate value to the board. Just like when you’re on a 10-day hike, each day there is a different plan to get to the destination: you’re going to pitch your tent, work out what food you need, what equipment you’ll use. Big goals are what we need, but we’ll get there by all taking small steps consistently, every day, tenaciously, with the occasional flag on the hill.”

Want to turn your job into your most powerful climate tool? WorkforClimate has information, inspiration and step-by-step resources to help.

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