At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational work looks like — and how best to advance that work in practice?
Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of social impact and sustainability leaders who are shaping business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.
Greg Behrman, NationSwell CEO and founder, sat down with George Serafeim, Charles M. Williams Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of “Purpose and Profit: How Business Can Lift Up the World,” to discuss the current state of the field of ESG, why criticism of the field — even bad faith or partisan criticism — can be a good thing, and the integral ways that purpose and profit depend on one another. Here’s what he had to say.
Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Was there a moment in your life that drove you to purpose-driven work?
George Serafeim, Harvard Business School: Growing up in Athens, Greece, I witnessed the golden years of our country — years marked by a tremendous amount of growth. But at the same time, I witnessed that if you don’t have transparency in a system, then you don’t have accountability — and if you don’t have accountability, you actually don’t have meritocracy. I witnessed all the bad outcomes that come from that lack: a 25% decline in gross domestic product, a lot of people losing their livelihoods and their quality of life, a lot of people going into unemployment, and, as a result, a tremendous amount of pain.
Witnessing that has shaped my belief that transparency is extremely important for building accountability — and therefore meritocracy — in society. I think historically, we in America have had very little transparency about the extent to which organizations are impacting the environment and society around them. For me, it was almost like connecting dots — it led to a lot of my work around creating measurement, and metrics, and increased levels of transparency because once you can measure stuff, then you can start building momentum and unleashing waves of innovation that can improve outcomes.
That has been the story of ESG in the last decade.
Behrman, NationSwell: As you think about this field of ESG, where are we now? How do you assess this current moment?
Serafeim: There was no field of ESG a few years ago — and that is very important to recognize because when you create a field, you’re also trying to educate people about the need for a field. And then you scramble to put a field together using the best available tools that you have, the best data that you have, the best frameworks, the best models, the best learnings, the best of everything. Much like product development, you have a minimum viable product (MVP) of a field.
In the beginning phase, there would be people at an organization responsible for ESG and sustainability, and they might not even be in the right places in terms of organizational structure. Think about a tech company where the tech people have no idea what’s happening on the sustainability side.
But now we’re a step or two past this MVP stage, and we actually understand what works and what doesn’t, and we have an understanding of what we need to do to improve it, and improve the infrastructure around it. ESG is more and more incorporated into what an organization does, its core products and services. We’re creating guardrails around what the field of ESG should be. Now it’s a matter of actually improving the field.
Behrman, NationSwell: Does it advance us past the MVP stage to incorporate ESG throughout the core of the organization, as opposed to as an ancillary appendage?
Serafeim: Absolutely. It requires a different mindset. It requires us to ask, “How can we make a profit by having a more positive impact on the world?” instead of treating profit and purpose as disparate entities wherein we’d be asking ourselves how we can distribute the profit that we’ve already created based on some ESG consideration.
The evolution in thinking we need actually requires ESG to be integrated into the important functions of our organization — it is an entirely different mindset.
Behrman, NationSwell: What is the next big step we have to take as a field — and how do we unlock it?
Serafeim, HBS: The first step is a systemic level of impact measurement and evaluation. We need to get to a world where we actually have comparable, reliable, and relevant impact measurement and evaluation inside organizations. This is what we have been working on with impact-weighted accounts. We also need more collaboration across organizations. Many of the environmental and social challenges that we’re facing require collaboration across multiple companies, across value chains, so that needs to happen more.
Behrman, NationSwell: Are impact-weighted accounts the answer to systematic evaluation and measurement — or does it need further development?
Serafeim, HBS: I think it still needs further development, for sure. So, as context, we created the idea of impact-weighted accounts about two and a half years ago. And now, it is an idea that has spread worldwide, from the United States to China. And we’re seeing the idea of impact-weighted accounts applied in companies, in investment firms, by policy makers in cities and municipalities, everywhere around the world. I don’t know if it will be the ultimate solution, but I do know that it is a step in the right direction, where we need to systematically measure the environmental and social outcomes that we’re creating, and the value of those outcomes. We need to understand the value that we’re achieving because allocating scarce resources is a very difficult task, and that understanding would help us to prioritize those resources.
Behrman, NationSwell: What are some takeaways from “Purpose and Profit” that help advance the way that the field’s leaders think about ESG
Serafeim, HBS: I wrote this book because when I reflect back on my experience, I think we went from a world where very few people that went into business were asking, “What is the purpose of business? What is the purpose of me, specifically, going into business?”
I have witnessed a tremendous amount of change, and I’m fortunate to be sitting in a seat where I observe hundreds of young people going into business every year, and whose decisions about their careers are being guided by the central questions of, “How can I make a difference? What is the impact that I will have?”
So, I wanted to write the book around two questions. The first one is, “What has changed?” And the second one is, “What can I do about it as an individual?” I think there are many people that are extremely competent at telling other people what to do, but the most important question to me as an individual, manager, entrepreneur, young person — whatever that might be — it’s always about what I can do within my own organization. And as a result, the book is focused on both trying to understand what has changed, and how I should think about those issues within the context of my own individual career.
This is what brought me to profit and purpose. I put them together because purpose is extremely important: it motivates action, and it energizes people. But at the same time, the pursuit of profit is also very, very important because in business, if you actually cannot be profitable, then you won’t be in business for a long time, and you will fail the people you’re serving, to whom you have promised to deliver impact. Profit allows you to scale up, hire more people, create jobs, and provide products. So, the question is: How do we take them both together, balance them out, and ensure we have a great mix of the two?
The business environment has changed in pretty significant ways. Technology has been a fundamental driver of that change in the operating context. Let’s look at employees. If you go back 30 years ago and you were trying to find a job in a completely different state, that was quite challenging, right? But now, because of advancements in technology like LinkedIn, you would be able to actually make a choice that was not available to you before.
The same is true for consumers: not only has choice changed, but voice has, too. Now, most of the competitiveness of organizations is actually driven by things like social capital, the trust that you have from society to the brand that you’re offering; intellectual capital, the collective ingenuity of all your employees; and of course, human capital and natural capital as well. As a result, because of all of those more intangible assets that businesses depend on, the voice of people — of consumers, employees, and stakeholders — has become a really important driver of strategic decision-making and value inside organizations.
My book also gives guidance to readers about actions they can take to align their convictions and values with their careers. As an example, if you are extremely passionate about addressing an environmental issue like climate change, or a social issue like diversity and inclusion, you have some choices. The first one is: you can choose to find employment in a place that maximizes the alignment of your purpose to begin with — like an environmentally conscious person choosing to work with a solar energy company. Individuals making choices like this value that level of alignment right from the beginning.
Others might choose to join organizations where the level of alignment might be low in the beginning, but what they actually value is the rate of change. These people might join a traditional energy company and you try to make a difference by changing that company. We all make different choices and we need to be thinking about those parameters in a systematic way when we think about our own individual purpose and impact at the workplace.
Behrman, NationSwell: There’s political pushback against ESG, and there’s measures of skepticism towards ESG from various quarters of the investment community. Does this criticism impede progress, or is there a world in which all of this is helpful, that the pushback sharpens folks and helps them pressure test their ambitions?
Serafeim, HBS: It would be a shame if the field of ESG becomes a partisan political issue. I view it as a field of development, where it actually becomes part of our management and our governance, that people incorporate into their career pathways — that leads to organizations collectively seeing more positive outcomes. To me, that is not a Democratic or a Republican issue, it’s a human aspiration issue.
Now, I know that many people view it as a political issue, and it would be a shame if we cannot actually shake it and say, “This is about human aspirations, and how we move forward, and how we actually improve real outcomes.”
When it comes to criticism, there’s lots of it that is quite helpful to advancing the field of ESG. I have written papers that could be construed as a criticism of ESG because I think we should improve things — if you don’t criticize it, how else can you improve?
That said, there are criticisms of ESG that are driven by incentives, personal agendas, and misconstructions of what a concept might be. I would separate those out because I don’t think they’re helpful, and they serve very specific purposes. But taking a step back from those, the fact that there’s criticism is a good thing because it means interest in the field is peaking, that it’s making a difference, because if it’s not, nobody would care. So the fact that there’s pushback, helpful and unhelpful, means that after a long period of time ESG is finally really affecting things.
For anyone working in an administration position in an organization, it’s important to filter the criticism, keep the good ones that actually can be helpful in improving your organization, filter out the ones that are not helpful, and then feel good about the fact that there’s any criticism at all — because it means the field is actually making a difference.
Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some of the ESG practitioners whom you admire?
Serafeim, HBS: Social Finance, led by Tracy Palandjian, is an organization that for me is incredible, it’s amazing the amount of work that they have been doing there. We’re working with another organization, the Value Balancing Alliance out of Germany, they are an incredible organization as well.
I have been impressed by many people, and one of my personal favorites is Sir Ronald Cohen. The fact that he has been able to be a serial social entrepreneur catalyzing the whole impact investing movement and going strong for 50 years with the conviction and the vision to drive forward things that — for many people — look unimaginable or impossible.
Ilham Kadri, the CEO of Solvay, is someone that has always deeply impressed me. Her vision around sustainability, advanced materials, and how we can actually use technology in science to move forward is something that I have admired a lot.
Sarah Williamson at FCLT is a pragmatic, collaborative leader who has really made a difference when it comes to how large institutions everywhere around the world are thinking about the issues of long-term prosperity.
And I’d round that out with some scholars and academics: Harvard Business School’s previous and current deans, Nitin Nohria and Srikant Datar, who both demonstrate an enormous amount of intellectual rigor and capacity to implement and visualize the future with conviction for where a long established legacy organization like Harvard Business School needs to go. Lastly, Rebecca Henderson is one of the most important global scholars of our age. I’ve learned a lot from them.
There are so many great organizations and practitioners — I would say what they usually say, that it takes a village, is just so true when it comes to that. We’re talking about system change, and system change takes a lot of people.
To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. To learn more about NationSwell’s community of our country’s leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.