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Thinking in Systems

Preparing for today's ESG consulting jobs

A look inside a sustainable business graduate school’s consultancy program.

Diverse business people standing together at startup.

Image via Jacob Lund on Shutterstock.

Traditional consulting involves using the expertise of outside professionals to assist an organization in improving its performance. The management consultant provides detailed advice, objective insights and recommendations to a group of people working to achieve a specific goal.

In contrast, today, corporate executives are surrounded by vocal stakeholders who demand swift elevation of their corporate sustainability and ESG goals. With a global pandemic exacerbating the looming climate crisis, businesses are forced to rethink what they have been doing for decades. Some companies have already staffed up with ESG-expert employees as part of their strategies. Most start by seeking management consultants, meaning that we need more ESG-expert management consultants now.

In sustainability management consulting, the consultant assists the organization in adopting and developing methods to make it more environmentally and socially responsible. There may be additional challenges when the consultant is tasked with taking into account the potentially conflicting needs of people, the environment and the enterprise.

In recent years, large companies have begun embracing the role of chief sustainability officers (CSOs) and the value they bring to achieving the highest rate of long-term growth. While there are still limits to understanding what sustainability truly embodies in the corporate sphere, stakeholders are more than willing to learn of the benefits that await them when sustainability is embedded in a top-down approach.

PGS Consults is the consultancy arm of Presidio Graduate School, helping clients implement and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To meet the need for graduate students to get a taste of consulting while they are immersed in their studies, PGS Consults launched the Consultancy Shadowing Program. In this program, students attend project meetings where sustainability management consultants discuss project deliverables. In doing so, the students see their knowledge applied in a real-world setting.

With a global pandemic exacerbating the looming climate crisis, businesses are forced to rethink what they have been doing for decades.

The program provides first-person perspectives on various forms of ESG management, ranging from carbon accounting (Scopes 1, 2 and 3) to materiality assessments. For selected participants, they see engagement between different thought leaders with varying levels of expertise, each giving a fresh look at how to apply a systems lens to the challenge at hand.

We checked in with some PGS students to hear about innovative experiences they are having to make an impact while still in their respective degrees programs.

The student experience

Studies reveal that businesses are encouraging students to engage with some level of curriculum related to sustainability, or encouraging them to pursue a degree in the field itself.

When it comes to "green" degrees, there are many avenues one can take. For those looking to become a consultant or high level executive, there are skills that will lay the foundation for this career path. These include: organizing and facilitating effective meetings; addressing ESG client goals without resulting in greenwashing; conducting stakeholder interviews and analysis; and providing succinct presentations to executives.

Many schools across the United States are collaborating to establish more curricula that keep both social equity and planetary health in mind. Whether you have a passion for law or entrepreneurship, the benefit of a green career is the immense overlap of skill sets one can develop through previous experience. Through the Consultancy Shadowing Program, selected students will gain insights from consulting practitioners ranging from recent graduates and alumni to seasoned experts.

"This shadowing program gives us a chance to engage with some of our learning in context, and perhaps an opportunity to help move the needle a little bit in the process," said Taylor Sayward, a first-year MBA candidate in sustainable solutions.

Each semester, up to 10 students are accepted to the program. They can be newly admitted students as well as those in their final term before graduation. To stay true to inclusivity, students from Presidio’s MBA and Master of Public Administration programs are encouraged to apply.

The program is a full semester, with a new cohort accepted the following semester. Participants are encouraged to attend up to three project meetings between consultants, observing and contributing their thoughts on the process. The students will also complete a specially designed course, Management Consulting Skills for Sustainability Professionals, to supplement the knowledge obtained in the field.

Upon completing the course, participants meet with PGS Consults Managing Director Pamela Gordon to discuss expert feedback on a winning proposal they complete by the course’s end, mimicking a critique of a consulting proposal. Participants are also alerted to internship opportunities with our clients. When the semester ends, they leave the program with a well-rounded understanding of what sustainability management consulting is, as well as the components that come together in real-time for practitioners in the field.

"My expectations were exceeded with the comprehensive course Management Consulting Skills for Sustainability Professionals. It offered real world applications of sustainability management consulting as well as perspectives from consultants on how to work with clients on various topics. Being able to create my own proposal at the end of the course was the piece de resistance," said Stevie Roberts, another first-year MBA candidate in sustainable solutions and student employee at Presidio.

The graduate advantage 

Graduate school has long been lauded for providing a deeper understanding in specific areas, greater employment opportunities and increases in salary. While these are noteworthy factors to consider when pursuing a graduate degree, today’s students continue voicing their desire to prioritize our planet’s resources and the people who depend on them. Learning methods to increase economic growth while being mindful of social equity and environmental responsibility requires an education that has such focus at the core of its teachings, requiring critical thinking and discussion beyond what is provided at the university level.

This shadowing program gives us a chance to engage with some of our learning in context, and perhaps an opportunity to help move the needle a little bit in the process.

Millennials and Gen Xers are the largest consumer base in the nation, and they look to business as a vehicle to do good. According to a report by the Harvard Business Review, the number of graduate students in the U.S. has tripled since the 1970s, with 27 percent of employers requiring or preferring master’s degrees for roles that were traditionally appropriate to hold with an undergraduate degree.

When professionals decide to embark on the sustainability path, they realize it will take much focus and resilience. PGS Consults provides a way for participants in the Consultancy Shadowing Program to learn about sustainability consulting as a field, and how it touches on many organizations and industries.

"It's been great to be able to learn from everyone on the team. I've really liked understanding the process and steps that it takes to go through a consulting process," said Alicia Levine, an MBA candidate in sustainable solutions.

Our participants are a growing and passionate bunch, looking to be in a community that creates conversations with each other and the organizations with which they work. Seeing companies continue to embrace the benefits of transparency and resiliency, our students likewise value such traits and appreciate how they are conveyed with PGS consultants, as well as with each other.

Each year, up to seven students are offered jobs in sustainable management consulting. As an institution focused on the intersection between sustainability and social justice, Presidio Graduate School stays true to our promise of training a new generation of changemakers, one student at a time.

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