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A Step-by-Step Guide to Your First Year as a Sustainability Leader

by Andrew Kaminsky, FiscalNote

Here are expert tips for your first successful year as a sustainability leader.

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Stepping into a new ESG role is a daunting task. Since careers in ESG and sustainability are still relatively new, it can be difficult to know where to begin, and there’s no playbook to guide you through the process. Even seasoned sustainability leaders are having to adapt to the rapidly evolving ESG landscape, while many other executives are finding themselves tackling new ESG responsibilities.

ESG regulations, industry standards, and stakeholder expectations are constantly changing. Not to mention, no matter how big the company, you may be the only person dedicated to ESG efforts.

It can feel overwhelming and even lonely at times. For this reason, we’ve assembled expert tips to put your mind at ease and help you visualize the path forward.

1. Understand Leadership’s Expectations

The first thing is to understand what the company’s leadership is expecting. Developing close relationships with leaders and keeping an open line of communication will ensure that your priorities are aligned and that you have their support going forward.

You also must understand the broader stakeholder expectations, whether that be consumers, investors, employees, or the surrounding communities.

“Within the first 60 days, you should understand leadership’s goals and expectations for an ESG program, the implications of ESG reporting, and stakeholder expectations,” says Lynn Wright, senior group director of corporate social responsibility at Cadence.

Aligning yourself with stakeholders and leaders will help get the support you need to propel a successful ESG strategy.

“It’ll be important going forward to have that leadership buy-in and championing,” says Ian Tharp, principal at LodeRock Advisors Inc. “An ESG team might be just one person. That’s part of understanding the baseline — what resources will you have access to?”

2. Take Stock of Current ESG Business Activities

Once you know what the leadership wants, you have to understand where the business sits concerning ESG. Knowing what metrics are being measured, familiarizing yourself with the strategy already in place (if any), and establishing an ESG baseline are important steps to begin a path forward.

You should also take a look around and benchmark against your industry and competitors. See what other companies are doing, what their strategies look like, and which areas of improvement you can find within your organization. Don’t be afraid to talk with ESG leaders at other companies or business partnerships such as the ESG & CSR Board, which can open up a whole network of resources for you to draw on.

“This isn’t something we need to be doing alone. This is something that really opens up opportunities for collaboration and partnership. It’s not about my business versus your business — but partnerships for good,” says Wright.

Additionally, consider what ESG software and workflows might be valuable to your organization. A spreadsheet cannot manage the complexity of ESG, and third-party software will prove invaluable for your ESG journey.

3. Build Relationships With Internal Stakeholders

Your most valuable asset will be your internal stakeholders — your fellow employees across all departments that share a passion for ESG. From your conversations with employees, you can begin to form an ESG committee. You’ll need their bosses’ support to borrow some of their time, which is why having leadership’s buy-in from the beginning is vital.

“The work of ESG integration must be spread across the organization. The ESG team cannot go it alone without bottoms up and tops down support, up to the Board,” says Lane Jost, executive vice president and U.S. head of ESG advisory at Edelman.

“It’s really important for ESG directors in their early days to establish, cement, and really build their internal stakeholder relationships,” says Betsy Henning, global practice leader for employee engagement at FINN Partners. “This is still a position that wins by influence and not by control. Building and maintaining those internal relationships is 100 percent critical.”

4. Understand What’s Material for Your Organization

Understanding what matters to your business and industry is vital for any ESG strategy, particularly from an ESG perspective. Conducting a materiality assessment will clarify the aspects of your business that require focus.

Enlisting the help of external consultants is critical to understanding the scope of your organization’s materiality and the industry standards.

“External consultants play a very key role because they own the expertise of ESG expectations, rules, and regulations,” Wright explains. “Plus, they come armed with assessment tools — a way to frame the questions and discussions so that you understand how everything fits and you can quickly zoom in on what’s material.”

5. Start To Develop a Strategy

Once you’ve built your relationships, learned all you can about your business, and understood your material factors, you can begin to develop a strategy. Your first-year ESG strategy does not need to be all-encompassing, but it needs to get the ball rolling.

“At the beginning, less is more. You want to pick maybe four to six material factors that you can gain some confidence around in terms of how you measure those and how you perform against those,” says Tharp.

Rather than trying to tackle all areas of ESG broadly, focus on building a strong foundation with your selected material factors. As you become comfortable with those, you can begin to add more parts to your strategy. Set attainable short-term goals and build employee enthusiasm around your ESG aspirations.

One thing that is going to be critical as your strategy grows is data collection. Build an ESG data pipeline to have quick and reliable access to your metrics.

“You can’t control what you can’t see. Without reliable data, we don’t know how sustainable we are. It’s paramount,” says Greg Wolfson, chief technology officer at EcoSmart Solution.

“An ESG director who minds the now, which is relationships and influence, and builds for the future, which is more automated return of data, is packing a one-two punch that will be really powerful,” says Henning.

How FiscalNote ESG Can Help

The most important part of ESG work is to be accurate and transparent in your communication and reporting. Get the guidance and answers you need on pressing ESG concerns. FiscalNote ESG Solutions can help guide your journey with expert advice, automated data collection, AI sentiment analysis, industry benchmarking, and much more. Discover how you can do more.

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