Stakeholder Capitalism

ESG talent is critical for advancing sustainability strategy

Companies driving sustainability goals forward must make sure they have the right people taking them down this new path

Companies driving sustainability goals forward must make sure they have the right people taking them down this new path Image: Sebastian Staines/Unsplash

Amy Brachio
Deputy Vice Chair – Sustainability, EY Global
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  • Many companies are committing themselves to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles and targets.
  • Sustainability goals should be a core part of strategy, and pursued by talented and empowered leaders with the support of the whole organization.
  • Successfully implementing sustainability strategies will rely on turning commitments into real action.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more businesses commit publicly to reaching sustainability targets. It’s a familiar story: A CEO of a large company announces that the organization will be net zero by a specific date. That’s not where the work ends; rather it’s where the transition required begins in earnest.

After all, these are often challenging goals, with timetables that will far exceed most executives’ tenures at the company. So, once those commitments are in place, many organizations find themselves reflecting on whether they have the plans and people in place to translate their ambition into meaningful results.

This may be a daunting challenge, but as the EY Global Deputy Vice Chair for Sustainability, I’ve seen firsthand that it is possible to mobilize large-scale organizational change. And right now, there is incredible potential for businesses that implement an effective sustainability strategy while simultaneously recruiting and training people needed to bring that vision to life.

Implement a four-step approach to sustainability

Any meaningful milestone isn’t achieved overnight – and at EY, we’ve helped many businesses define their sustainability efforts. To that end, we’ve found companies are often best served by a comprehensive, four-step approach.

First, organizations must embed their sustainability strategy into their broader growth strategy. The importance of this can’t be overstated because it makes it possible for leadership to work together to identify opportunities, set targets, and get buy-in across the organization. Then, once everyone is in alignment, businesses can begin shifting their operations and accelerating their transformation. This often involves behavior change, new supply chain strategies and scaling new technologies—which can be anything from green innovations to dashboards that measure a company’s progress in real time.

After that, the third step is to measure results and embed ESG governance principles into ongoing business operations. Then finally, they should build trust by disclosing those results publicly. With so many companies making bold promises, people are becoming increasingly skeptical of whether they’ll deliver. So, it’s imperative that organizations bridge the trust gap by communicating their progress to stakeholders through transparent reporting.


Cultivate sustainability leaders within your organization

Before companies can implement this approach successfully, they need to determine whether they have the right leaders with the right qualifications in place to drive change. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for every organization. For instance, some businesses need a Chief Sustainability Officer with a science or engineering background. Others need someone with deep institutional knowledge who can learn the sustainability piece on the job.

The challenge is, as urgent as corporate sustainability is, it’s also a relatively nascent field given the breadth of skills required to meet the commitments for a sustainable future – and the supply of ESG professionals is not yet in line with the demand. Consider that in 2020, Fortune 500 companies hired more Chief Sustainability Officers than they had in the previous three years combined. It’s little wonder that last year, the Financial Times wrote about a growing talent shortage that can’t keep up with the current demand.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Fortunately, there’s a lot that organizations can do to close this gap. My own career is a case in point. I’m a CPA with a risk and regulatory background who spent many years building a deep knowledge of our complex global organization. I am learning the skills needed to specialize in sustainability much later – but my institutional knowledge has proven critical to effectively translating these lessons into actionable strategy.

That’s why, at EY, we believe it’s important to focus on giving all employees—from new hires to top executives—a working knowledge of sustainability, so they can support our clients’ sustainability goals. For instance, we recently collaborated with Hult International Business School to offer a free, fully accredited Masters in Sustainability to all of our people. This qualification is the first of its kind, and we’re incredibly excited about its potential. We’re also helping other organizations build their employees’ ESG competencies through the EY Skills Foundry program. After all, our sustainability goals are a core part of our strategy, so whether they plan on pursuing a career in the field or not, everyone can benefit from learning the skills needed to help advance this work.

What is more, employees desire these skills: the EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey found that nearly a quarter of employees want their employers to enhance their approach to ESG and skill development. Another 18% believe an enhanced understanding of their company’s sustainability could improve turnover.


Add a sustainability focus to education

There is also more we can do to equip recent graduates with the skills they need at the very beginning of their careers. Since businesses are starting to think more holistically about sustainability, anyone planning to work in professional services—whether they have a future in accounting, supply chain management, risk management or innovation —would benefit from learning about sustainability early on.

For example, as our CEO, Carmine Di Sibio, recently said, accountants are positioned to make a difference in the ESG space. And he’s right. ESG reporting is an evolving field. In addition to the raft of standard setters and reporting frameworks out there, the regulatory landscape is heating up. The European Union has issued an extensive sustainability reporting directive, while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed new rules that would require public companies to make climate-related disclosures. Meanwhile, investors are looking for standard, non-financial reporting they can trust. So, by learning how to assess carbon credits, evaluate risks associated with climate change, and comply with new reporting standards, they can play a pivotal role in their company’s sustainability journey.

And that’s true across the entire professional services landscape. We already see the rise of “green MBAs,” and we need more initiatives like this. Here, the business community must play its part. By working alongside colleges and universities and implementing their own training initiatives, businesses can better prepare graduates and their existing employees to take on a range of sustainability challenges right from the start of their careers.

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Close the ‘say, do’ gap now

It’s time for businesses to take action, or as I like to say, make no room for a ‘say, do’ gap. And in fact, they have every incentive to do so. A growing body of research proves that the moral case and the business case for sustainability are aligned—and stakeholders are eager for companies to meet this moment with the urgency it demands.

With that, here are four questions businesses need to answer to execute their sustainability strategy successfully.

  • Do you have the right leaders to drive the change needed to reach your sustainability goals?
  • Are you equipping your employees with the right skills and training, so they can deliver on these goals?
  • Do you have the right mechanisms in place to measure your progress and ensure you are on track?
  • Are you constantly evaluating your goals to makes sure they are consistent with stakeholder expectations?

These questions will prove critical for the future of business and the future of our entire planet for generations to come. While every organization will answer them slightly differently, and every strategy will be unique, there is one constant when it comes to this work. Wherever you are, and whatever your industry, the time to act is now.

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