Skip to main content

The hottest new job in sustainability: ESG controller

More Fortune 100 companies are hiring individuals who oversee sustainability disclosures, an emerging new role for many corporations.

Person checking over data reports

Image via Shutterstock/CrizzyStudio

The title "ESG controller" was virtually non-existent just two years ago. Now there are ESG controllers on the payroll at more than 50 Fortune 100 companies, where they oversee data systems and processes that underpin sustainability-related disclosures to regulatory bodies. 

The role takes inspiration from financial controllers, who manage financial disclosures such as those required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Essentially, I’m responsible for the reporting integrity around all of our ESG disclosures," Mastercard’s ESG controller, Tarynn Zenk, said during a panel discussion last month at GreenBiz 24

What does being an ESG controller entail? How can these individuals support a corporate sustainability agenda? Here are insights offered by Zenk and others familiar with the role.

Make friends across the company 

The role of an ESG controller is not just about understanding numbers, it’s about building cross-functional relationships, Zenk said, highlighting her participation in the sustainability team’s weekly meeting as one key to the success she’s had in her first two years on the job.

Most organizations can’t dedicate a person to ESG reporting in every regional office or business unit, so the ESG controller must rely on other stakeholders to be aware of what is happening in each jurisdiction. Other key internal stakeholders include the CFO office, where Zenk works on a daily basis, and subject matter experts in Mastercard’s lines of business responsible for ongoing ESG initiatives and who provide the data. 

By fostering connections across the organization, ESG controllers can ease fears they’re taking over someone else’s job and instead show how they can mutually improve data quality, said Scott Song, ESG controller for commercial real estate services company CBRE. 

Song’s three tips for successful collaboration as an ESG controller: 

  1. Get leadership and executive buy-in. This will help make clear when compliance activities must be prioritized above other department goals. 
  2. Provide clarity. Define the roles, responsibilities, resources and point of contact for each function you support. 
  3. Be patient. Understand that managing data will be new for some people, and they may require coaching and education. 

One benefit of hiring internally for the ESG controller role is that "they know how to navigate internal systems and know who to talk to, and how to get things done," said recruiter Ellen Weinreb, who is placing ESG controllers at a growing number of multinational companies.

Learn from peers 

Many new ESG controllers may be writing their job description in real time. One of the most beneficial relationships for building knowledge is with other ESG controllers, said Velislava Ivanova, chief sustainability officer for EY Americas. EY manages a leadership network of nearly 50 ESG controllers from Fortune 100 companies that meet quarterly for this purpose.

Peer learning can also extend to financial controllers, who are used to building and managing complex reporting systems to meet the regiments of regulators around the globe. Mandatory ESG reporting might not be exactly like financial reporting, but ESG controllers can learn a lot from how their organization’s financial controller has designed their team and reporting system to manage reporting for a global company, Zenk said.

Communicate how you create value 

Complying with mandatory reporting requirements is the primary responsibility of an ESG controller, but "it's extremely important that the ESG controller understands that the goal isn't just to check these boxes," said Weinreb.

"One way that we can add value is by holding ourselves accountable," said Zenk. At a time when some companies are "greenhushing" their ESG accomplishments and stepping back from public statements, an ESG controller can build confidence in reported data, including targets and baseline measurements.

This is critical as more investors demand ESG data assurance. When investors look at a company’s next ESG report and see "there is more transparent information, more accurate information and more auditing, the report definitely will increase your shareholder confidence," Song said. 

Be comfortable with regulatory uncertainty 

ESG controllers will have to prepare their organization for regulations that do not exist yet or that continue to be updated. This requires ESG controllers to "be comfortable being uncomfortable," said Song, who views change management as a critical skill for successful ESG controllers. 

Staying on top of the rapidly evolving regulatory environment is what keeps ESG controllers up at night. CBRE operates in more than 100 countries and Mastercard does business in 210 countries and territories. Tracking and complying with ESG regulations across hundreds of jurisdictions requires collaboration with multiple teams, such as legal and compliance, but those functions often don’t have the capacity to take on that task.

Who is accountable if a new regulation is missed? How can that be avoided? That’s where an ESG controller can step in with valuable perspective, Song said.

[Want to continue the dialogue on sustainable financing and investing? Check out GreenFin 24 — the leading ESG conference — taking place June 17-19, in New York City, NY.]

 

More on this topic

More by This Author