Increasing internal knowledge and engagement on ESG is crucial for companies working to advance social and environmental progress. While everyone from senior leaders to rank-and-file employees play a critical role in the failure or success of ESG initiatives, there remains a wide spectrum of knowledge and skill sets that corporate sustainability professionals must navigate to succeed in moving internal stakeholders into action.
All of this is made even more difficult by the current state of polarization around ESG in U.S. political discourse and media. Many internal stakeholders don’t know what to believe, much less understand the important part they play in their organization’s ESG success.
To better understand how sustainability leads can elevate internal understanding on ESG, at GreenFin 23 I led a panel discussion with leaders across business, private equity and academia. The panel included Veena Jayadeva, head of enterprise ESG at Guardian Life; George Basile, professor of practice, College of Global Futures at ASU School of Sustainability; Kate Hanley, director of global climate strategy at Aramark; and Ben Morley, partner and associate director at Boston Consulting Group.
During the discussion, we uncovered four strategies for addressing the challenges and opportunities of engaging internal stakeholders on ESG.
1. Connect ESG actions to employee success
Employees have enough to worry about meeting their individual and team goals — and the last thing they need is feeling the burden of addressing the climate crisis and other social and environmental problems. That’s why leading with "saving the world" language when communicating ESG internally doesn’t always translate well for employees.
"You want to avoid ‘transformation overload’ when discussing ESG issues internally," said Basile. "Talking about the climate crisis, water issues and how the sky is falling — and expect them to get it all done by Monday."
Rather than scaring off employees with high-stakes talk, a more effective approach is to demonstrate how achieving ESG goals helps individuals, teams and the broader organization be more successful. "It’s important to link ESG topics to issues people care about and how it will help them be more successful in their role," said Morley.
Morley added that Boston Consulting Group recently worked on a project with a large commercial bank to help tens of thousands of frontline bankers better understand the climate crisis and climate finance to better help their clients with topics of transitioning to a low-carbon economy and creating commercial opportunities out of climate uncertainty. By showing how understanding ESG issues could help the bankers do their job better and create value, Boston Consulting Group was able to engage them on social and environmental issues that otherwise might have been downplayed or ignored.
2. Diversify your messengers
What you say isn’t always as important as who is saying it. While sustainability leads often find themselves as the mouthpiece for internal communication on ESG, this isn’t always the most effective approach. Employees may be more likely to listen to one of their peers than the sustainability lead who is always talking about ESG issues.
"When engaging internal audiences on ESG, the messenger is really important and a lot of times the best messenger is not the sustainability person," said Hanley. "It’s important to find out who that messenger should be, and give them a platform with ongoing support."
Sometimes the best place to start are those who are already engaged with the organization. A good place to find these folks is by looking at leaders of employee resource groups, which often align with ESG issues, such as environmental or diversity, equity and inclusion groups, said Jayadeva.
"At every organization there’s a cadre of employees who want to do more than just their job — who will raise their hand to go the extra mile," said Jayadeva. "Start with them; they can be your ESG champions."
And it’s important to not assume who your best or worst messengers might be. "I have been surprised so many times by the people who are harder to engage than I expected, and the people who are easier to engage than I thought," said Hanley.
The trick, according to Hanley, is to be ready to identify and embrace employee interest in ESG whenever it emerges. Perhaps an employee is jazzed about taking on the climate crisis after watching a documentary or helping a child with a school project. Because the window of opportunity for engaging these employees can be small, sustainability leads must move fast to convert these people into ESG advocates.
3. Understand internal politics to get things done
Corporations are complex organizations made up of intricate webs of customs, processes and individual egos — and that means navigating internal politics is inevitable.
"Increasingly there is an amount of political savviness that is required for these roles," said Jayadeva. "This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans — but about understanding your organization and executives, and knowing what tables you need to have a seat at to get things done on ESG."
This resonates with a GreenBiz piece I wrote in 2021 about how corporate sustainability leaders must play the internal political game to get things done. With limited resources, staff, budget and organizational attention, the most difficult aspect of a sustainability lead’s job often isn’t the technical and programmatic ESG challenges, but engaging in a "Game of Thrones"-type exercise to get things done.
4. Measuring success is key
Knowing when you’ve been successful in improving internal ESG understanding and engagement isn’t always so simple. After all, you can’t practically administer regular ESG aptitude tests to measure your employees’ knowledge and progress.
"I know that I’ve been successful when I no longer need to be in the room," said Morley. This is the point where internal stakeholders feel confident enough about ESG to do their job with little or no hand-holding from the sustainability lead, he added.
"Beyond the goals and targets, for me success is when my colleagues understand the intersectionality of the issues so that they're not just thinking about this in a really siloed manner," said Jayadeva. When internal stakeholders really "get it" to the point that they think outside the box and work to collaborate with others within the organization on ESG challenges, this is a big indicator of success, she said.