Natalie Bellis, CEO, The Seventy Ninth Group.
It’s fair to say that during times of economic turmoil, so many of us, whether individuals or businesses, go into survival mode by focusing only on the immediate challenges at hand.
Yet, leaders must not lose sight of longer-term business goals and commitments. Don’t let a state of crisis become a distraction from ongoing efforts to do business in a more ethical and sustainable way.
In November, media attention turned to the COP27, the United Nations climate summit. At this conference, world leaders come together to make a commitment to a more sustainable future on a global scale. At an individual business level, it brings the focus back to our own aspirations and responsibilities. A commitment to your environmental, social and governance strategy is a long-term investment. In my mind, it can’t be something that takes a back seat when times get tough.
I felt very privileged to be tasked with my own company’s ESG strategy, but it’s also a huge and challenging responsibility. Yet, I know that if we are to identify with our clients’ aspirations to invest and do business more responsibly, we first need to ensure our own house is in order.
Through this process, I’ve learned a lot, much of which I think applies to businesses across our sector and beyond.
Remember that ESG goes beyond doing the right thing.
In my company, I am increasingly seeing ESG as a key consideration among investors, both institutional and private. These decisions are driven by personal values, peer pressure and a desire to future-proof their investments. Ultimately, investors are driven by the need to mitigate risk, both financial and reputational.
While “ESG” means different things to different people, for me, it comes down to doing business responsibly and having a framework in place that enables you to demonstrate due diligence. People are rightly skeptical of brands that make huge commitments without showing how they will reach them. But by being transparent in your achievements and challenges and building up proof points to evidence your journey—whether it is a groundbreaking “first” or a local accreditation—ESG goes beyond simply doing the right thing. It’s key to having a successful business.
In a business like the one I lead, which is fast-paced and growing rapidly, it’s important to carve out time and resources dedicated to driving the ESG agenda. One objective you can consider is setting up an ESG working group with a specific set of goals and accountability across departments. This is something my company has done, and progress and risks are fed back to our board.
Organizations can also create ESG category frameworks in order to track progress and keep everyone aligned. As you do this, make sure you celebrate milestones and raise awareness across the company to ensure all staff members are educated and invested. Without this kind of commitment, there is a risk of ESG ultimately becoming displaced on the boardroom agenda.
Recognize where you are—and where you are going.
What I have also learned is the importance of recognizing and communicating where you are in your ESG journey. The rhetoric you so often hear from big businesses is that they have their ESG work sewn up. But I believe it’s an ongoing challenge. The world changes, which means the way you do business also needs to change, and you can always be working toward a more responsible and sustainable way of operating.
Based on my observations, businesses developing an ESG strategy are so often inward-looking; they act on their own instincts and capabilities. This is admirable and can be effective, but as a business leader, it’s important to realize that ESG is not only about you. Ask yourself: Who are the stakeholders that our business might have an impact on, and what is it that they believe is helpful to support the environment and the community?
My company put this idea to the test with a recent project in West Africa, where our natural resource division has grown a portfolio of mining concessions in the Republic of Guinea. It is a challenging environment with regard to ESG, and it highlighted to us how the efforts we made must be considered and robust. To inform the process in Guinea, our team there carried out a survey with local communities to better understand the challenges they face and the reality of their situation. This was a critical first step, and the responses we received were enlightening.
Ultimately, the project reinforced that we must not make assumptions about what local communities need. Leaders need to listen to and understand what the community they’re serving cares about, not implement things that they think the community cares about. This is a crucial exercise in clarity and humility.
After gaining valuable insights from our survey, we were able to create several objectives to work toward in the region and a pragmatic plan of action to address each. There is much yet to do, but by taking a collaborative approach, I have confidence we are on the right track.
Share best practices with others.
The benefit of a business communicating its progress toward ESG commitments goes beyond the boost to reputation (though the power of this shouldn’t be underestimated). The value also lies in sharing best practices. Consider sharing your ideas, failures and aspirations with the wider business community. Why shouldn’t we be collaborating with our neighbors and even competitors?
Ultimately, we are all striving for the same goal: doing better business by doing business better.