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Thinking in Systems

The ins and outs of honing ESG training sessions

How and why you should tailor your ESG training for every audience — from executives to board members to employees.

People sit around a large table in a meeting room

Take a moment to picture yourself standing in a corporate conference room. There’s a long table of polished glass. Windows lining one wall overlook the cityscape outside. And seated in every dark leather office chair is a board member in a suit, listening as you present the company’s potential to lead the industry in environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibility.

Now picture yourself in a different conference room, bigger, with not so many windows along the walls. Rows of chairs fill the space from wall to wall, and in each of them sits a company employee, all from different departments, all with their own personal and political views, listening (or maybe, let’s be honest, checking their phone), while you present the same information you showed the board members.

If you stop and think about it for a second, you already know what we’re driving at with this visualization exercise: you can’t give the same ESG training to these two very different groups. One of them is bound to flop unless you take the time to tailor your training. At PGS Consults, we understand that to do right by doing good we have to actively listen to understand where others are along their ESG journey. We understand that teams, decisions and impacts are all connected and must be customized specifically to their business needs.

The why

Even as more corporate and nonprofit organizations request ESG training to meet customers, investors and internal stakeholders' increasing demands for responsible practices, training sessions can fall flat if they don’t engage each distinct audience and inspire action from top-level decision makers. How you communicate with a C-suite-level executive will be very different from how you communicate with a mid-level manager in human resources or a programmer on an IT team.

Every employee needs to recognize how reducing environmental impacts and instituting DEI initiatives benefits their organization, themselves and their communities.

And yet, we know that ESG is not something that exists only at the executive level; everyone is a stakeholder. For example, when conducting materiality assessments, we ask employees and executives about their ESG priorities for the company. You have to understand the nuances and how ESG initiatives align with their roles, i.e., whether they’re part of marketing or operations, supply chain or elsewhere. Every employee needs to recognize how reducing environmental impacts and instituting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives benefits their organization, themselves and their communities. It’s not so much a political stance as doing what’s right for the business and society.

The how

Of course, we must consider the question: how do we go about tailoring our ESG training?

The best place to start is to conduct interviews. Sitting down with stakeholder groups, asking them questions, and — most important — critically listening to their answers. The goal is to gather information on the issues most relevant to them and their work and to elicit their passion – if any – for how their organizations can foster human and environmental well-being.

This interview process should occur at an industry level and within the specific organization undergoing training. Talk to managers and workers from all different functions of the organization, whether it’s manufacturing, research and development or legal. If it’s a client with international reach, you need to talk to their teams around the globe because what is considered a material topic for ESG for an employee in Northern Europe may not be the same for an employee in India. Prioritize understanding what company initiatives would benefit them, what challenges they face that sound ESG strategies can solve, and what they’re looking for in ESG leadership.

Best practices in ESG training are continually evolving.

This deeper understanding will help immensely, especially as you encounter challenges and maybe even pushback. Things such as:

  • I don’t have time to learn something new.
  • I can’t add ESG on top of my existing obligations.
  • I’m already working X number of hours more than I wish to per week.

Another key part of the process is to sit down with members of the executive team and, if possible, the ESG committee chair before training actually begins and discuss their perspectives of where elements of ESG can increase their shareholder value and meet their top corporate goals. Their insight can play a crucial part in customizing training so that you can emphasize these aspects as part of the overall ESG business benefits. Your goal is to show your client how ESG practices help their team or organization meet its goals better and faster; adopting these practices actually reduces effort.

The tools

You can use a few skills or personal tools to help you further customize your ESG training:

  • Systems thinking: You need to understand how to look beyond the obvious and identify an organization's larger, more strategic vision. Figure out how to determine a business, nonprofit organization or government’s success factors, but also how they fit into and adapt to the rapid societal and environmental changes happening around them.
  • Organizational leadership experience: This could be obtained from an MBA or through work experience, especially in the sustainability field. Focus on building knowledge and skills as a leader in an operational capacity so you can speak the language of both the employees and the executive leadership.
  • Storytelling: Science is the know-how; storytelling is the why. Practice the art of crafting your message in a way that genuinely resonates with someone and provokes a response on a personal level. It’s one of the most powerful ways to create organizational change.

Nothing is likely to hone your skills and ability to speak effectively on the subject of ESG to the same degree as stepping into a community of passionate, like-minded change-makers. Best practices in ESG training are continually evolving. Connecting with thought leaders engaging with sustainability and systems thinking in academic or professional circles can significantly benefit your communication skills and improve every aspect of your ESG expertise.

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