The Climate-Literate Business Leader: Today’s Skills Unicorn

I just got off a call in which a leading player in the risk space described how he thought risk managers would laugh climate teams out of the room if they presented climate risk models that don’t account for uncertainty. His wider point: many climate scientists have limited exposure to or experience of business reality.

We’ve found in our studies that he’s more right than he is wrong. Climate science skills are rare, but climate science skills coupled with deep business expertise adds to nothing less than a corporate climate unicorn. Some things we found jaw-dropping:

  • In many major jobs markets, there are almost as many job announcements with climate-specific titles as there are professionals with climate-specific titles currently working in those markets.

  • Climate skills are overly concentrated in specific higher education hubs like Cambridge and Bonn, physically and mentally separate from major commercial hubs like London and Berlin.

  • The countries with the highest density of climate professionals are not, as you might expect, the UK, Germany or France – they’re New Zealand, Denmark and Belgium.


If you’ve been in the jobs market (as a ‘buyer’ hiring for these kinds of people or as a ‘seller’ pitching yourself), you’ve probably felt this weird dynamic firsthand. If you’re hiring, you’ll find that you’re having to compete with deep-pocketed players in the financial services space. A recent search we did took almost 12 months to fill. And recruitment agencies are swarming like sharks, though most seem to barely understand the underlying skills ‘product’.

If you’re responsible for accomplishing climate goals in a business, I’d say there are three major things that you can and should do to maximize your climate business unicorn quotient:

  1. Throw your climate experts from the ivory tower into the business fields.
    Admittedly, this sounds a bit violent and unattractive from the thrown person’s perspective, so you’ll want to position this transition well. What I’m talking about here is embedding your climate specialists in projects and teams where they’re surrounded by business people trying to accomplish business goals. A climate leader recently told me how they had success with team members working shoulder-to-shoulder with procurement – “sustainability issues impact them directly, but you have to understand their day-to-day to help them get it”. NatWest seems to have understood this. They’ve hired, or are hiring, dozens of climate scientists to sit in operational teams all across the UK.

    The positioning angle for your climate experts is the following: You want to have an impact in the business? First you need to get very, very literate with the business (even at the micro level); understand it, change it, and then we can look to scale that change.

  2. Lean on your climate vision and storytelling.
    Chances are you can’t compete from a salary perspective with the Goldman Sachs and McKinseys of the hiring world, and you shouldn’t try. Climate business unicorns will most likely have a salary minimum in mind, but thereafter they’ll go where they like the specific remit, impact and vision of each job. As a leader hiring these unicorns, you’ll want to sweat the soft sell sides of your job description: How will the role be empowered to change things? How great is the ambition level? How free will they be to craft their own strategy?

  3. Consider the transition plan as the road to climate skills success.
    If the climate-literate business leader is the unicorn of the corporate skills world, the credible transition plan is the unicorn of the corporate sustainability world. The two are interlinked: a transition plan forces the wheels of climate models and scenarios to mesh with the wheels of business; it therefore allows you to apply your few unicorns more effectively and efficiently where they’ll accomplish things. The first will help you as a leader build and demonstrate your own climate-literate business leader unicorn-ness, and the second gets the most mileage from your time and the time of those like you. Transition plan guidelines are many, but the Transition Plan Taskforce’s template is a good start.

Ryan Skinner

Ryan leads the Verdantix Net Zero & Climate Risk research practice. The team’s current research focus encompasses net zero drivers and strategies, and climate risk, emissions reduction, and carbon management technologies. Ryan has 10 years of experience in the research business, previously working at Forrester, where he led research on ESG. Ryan speaks English natively, Norwegian, and French conversationally. He holds a BA from Duke University.