Leading Through Floods, Fires, and Fierce Heat

June’s heat and a slew of storms portend that leaders likely will face climate-related challenges more frequently. Are they prepared?

A toxic haze, caused by out-of-control forest fires in northern Canada, enveloped cities across North America and Europe. Floods unseen in a thousand years washed away cars and buildings. High-temperature records, some decades old, fell worldwide.

That was just June.

It seems that climate-related business challenges are popping up somewhere nearly every day, and global temperatures are expected to continue to rise over the next several years. In 2022, US offices and retailers lost more than 3 million days of operation due to various natural disasters. Still, even with such events scattered across the globe, few see the changing climate as a potential danger to how they do business overall. Only one in five companies has plans to adapt to climate-related risks, according to data from S&P Global.

“Climate change isn’t a hypothetical, niche issue anymore. It’s about resiliency now, which is a leadership matter,” says Kate Shattuck, managing partner of Korn Ferry’s Philadelphia office and founder and global co-leader of the firm’s Impact Investing, ESG and Sustainability practice.

Preparing for climate change calls not only for updates to business-continuity plans but also—more importantly—for flexible, empathetic leaders. Climate issues can affect everything from safe commutes to air quality, all of which can impact people differently. “Provide folks flexibility to deal with the disaster of the moment. Lead with empathy and build community around those who are impacted,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits and mobility operations.

When an employee loses access to clean water in a hurricane, the last thing they should worry about is their company's disaster policy. Bloom says leaders should avoid getting wrapped up in policing company procedure following environmental disasters. “Employees don’t need someone trying to micromanage their safety and well-being in an emergency,” adds Bloom.

Even if disasters themselves might be unpredictable, existing climate data can offer a guide to the preparations an organization should undertake. “Climate change is predictable. As a business, you have a crystal ball telling you what’s going to happen over the next 20 years. Why wouldn’t you use that?” says Maggie Patrick, director of organizational research at the Korn Ferry Institute. She suggests organizations focus less on prevention and more on resilience and risk-mitigation. “It’s the best we can do,” she adds.

Building resilience comes in a variety of forms. Day-to-day solutions can include making sure an office’s air-conditioning systems are functional in the event of extreme heat and even providing portable filtration units and masks to protect employees from poor air quality. But adequate employee protection ultimately comes down to accommodating and empathetic leadership, as Bloom notes: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, but be ready.”

Resilience also includes making sure most workers can do their jobs remotely, says Cheryl D’Cruz-Young, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and founding member of the firm’s ESG Center of Expertise. Even as the pandemic’s danger fades and more organizations move to bring people back to the office, the onus should be on leaders to make sure their workforce has the tools and training to go remote if a hurricane, a heat wave, or other natural disaster makes the workplace inaccessible. “The ability to work remotely is a fundamental part of disaster response,” says D’Cruz-Young. To convey information during times of crisis, leaders also need to build strong and accessible internal-communication networks, as well as reliable, well-rehearsed crisis-response teams,

Experts say that leaders who adopt these climate-thoughtful approaches could not only help keep the business operating during disasters but also engage existing workers (and potentially attract new ones). Young workers are especially inclined to consider whether a company’s values appear genuine and align with their own, and climate change is of great concern to them. “Sustainability has become a pronounced factor in who the younger generation chooses to work for,” says Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner Mark Lancellot.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s ESG & Sustainability capabilities.