Amazon’s World-Changing Plans

The retailer’s grand plan to go carbon neutral in two decades poses challenges that any firm with big purpose goals may face.

The great 19th-century urban planner Daniel Burnham once said, “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” That bold mantra could now be the mission statement at some companies.

Buoyed by the purpose movement, companies big and small are aiming to curtail US gun sales, revolutionize preschool education, make housing more affordable, equalize pay among all employees, and other grand plans. The latest: the retail giant Amazon, which runs 50 planes, 20,000 vans, and countless warehouses, announced that it aims to be carbon neutral by 2040.

But while these big plans may excite stakeholders (or “stir man’s blood,” as Burnham put it), experts say that few organizations currently have the talent, perspective, or infrastructure to carry them out. In an era of social media, any stakeholder, be it an employee, customer, or someone else, can see and evaluate how well an organization is living up to its promises.

“Companies have to be ready to be examined. Don’t do it unless you’re ready,” says Kate Shattuck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Impact Investing practice.

Amazon’s case may represent the type of radical transparency other firms can expect as they embark on their own projects. The retailer announced that, among other things, it will increase its renewable energy use from 40% to 100% by 2030; buy 100,000 electric delivery vans; and contribute $100 million to The Nature Conservancy to restore forests and other wildlands. Within 24 hours of Amazon’s announcement, however, more than a thousand of its employees gathered outside its Seattle headquarters to insist that the firm and its tech rivals need to do more to deal with climate change.

Many organizations are already seeing such radical transparency take place. In the United Kingdom, for instance, all firms with more than 250 employees are required to disclose gaps in gender pay. If a company isn’t legally required to update its progress, stakeholders are insisting on it. That means that firms need to develop a system—and the talent—to report on the progress of its efforts, a skill that not many organizations have. For its part, Amazon says it will report the company’s emissions on a regular basis.

Experts say leaders who want to carry out ambitious, purpose-powered plans will need a slew of technical skills. For instance, if a company wants to reduce its carbon footprint, it needs talented people with deep knowledge in renewable energies, supply chain management, energy infrastructure, finance, and other hard skills. Real estate acumen isn’t to be overlooked, either, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in its retail practice, because so many changes involve moving to new or renovating existing buildings.

More importantly, however, are personal traits and behaviors that don’t necessarily show up on resumes. Tenacity, agility, and creativity are essential, Shattuck says. There aren’t many clear answers yet to some of the big problems that organizations are trying to tackle. Even if there are already clear options, many projects will require working with different constituencies, such as governments, nonprofits, and even profits from far-flung industries that normally would never interact with one another. “Someone needs the financial acumen of Warren Buffett, the heart of Mother Teresa, and the agility of MacGyver,” Shattuck says.