Building Brilliant Teams in ESG, Climate & Sustainability

River Partnership hosted a virtual roundtable on 7 December2021 entitled ‘Building Brilliant Teams in ESG, Climate &Sustainability.’ The discussion focused on challenges and growth opportunities as Financial Services organisations build ESG, Climate & Sustainability teams. Insights were shared from leading Partners, Founders and Executives of top-tier consulting, insurance and asset management firms, bringing diverse perspectives to the four key topics covered:
  • Proactive & Reactive approaches to growth
  • Industry & Professional Services
  • The Regulatory Environment
  • Labelling & Quantifying Talent, Pivoting Focus &‘Greenwashing’
The event was held under Chatham House Rule to encourage open discourse, and we have summarised the discussion and key insights from attendees below.

Proactive & Reactive approaches to growth:

As pressure increases to develop climate and sustainability capabilities, the question of how best to approach this growth becomes increasingly important. Boardroom and broader stakeholder influence can often prompt organisations to build their capabilities in a reactive way rather than taking a proactive approach.

Both proactive and reactive approaches have their benefits and can be utilised to advantage when well executed.

"Do you want to be a leader or a smart follower?"

Attendees loosely defined the well-executed proactive approach as the ‘leader’ and the well-executed reactive approach as the ‘smart follower.’

In developing growth plans for sustainability capabilities, organisations need first to consider the best fit for them: do you want to be a leader or a smart follower?

If an organisation aims to orient itself as a leader, the company must be proactive in setting out their direction of travel, and they must also take care to hire candidates who can think strategically about ‘where the buck is going’ so as to stay ahead of the curve.

Conversely, Smart followers do not have to lead the pack but instead can react to their ‘leader’ peers’ actions and alter their approach appropriately.

However, the current rush to build climate teams is causing poorly executed hiring responses. Some organisations are engaging in frantic team building, bringing onboard any candidate with experience in any part of ESG. One response is repurposing existing internal talent who have the advantage of guaranteed cultural alignment in a market which is already light on tenured expertise. As one example, Oliver Wyman has integrated climate content into the training models given to all consultants across disciplines, to ensure that climate and sustainability are embedded as part of their global toolkit.

Industry & Professional Services:

Internal sustainability teams have moved from ‘side of desk’ activities to standalone teams over the past three years. Attendees suggested one in three major corporations now have dedicated internal teams. As it becomes more common for corporates to have their own capabilities, the roles of consulting and advisory teams and in-house teams will adjust to make room for each other.

"A critical point is the sourcing of these corporate teams "

A critical point is the sourcing of these corporate teams -who are they hiring from? Boutique professional services firms are losing personnel to corporates. Corporates promise deep impact, specialism and higher salaries to build relevant industry knowledge in-house. Attendees from consulting firms said most of the attrition they are seeing is in the middle, management layer. A leader from a boutique climate advisory firm commented ‘we are both a nursery and retirement home’ for climate-focused talent.

"we are both a nursery and retirement home’ for climate-focused talent "

The Regulatory Environment:

In comparing Europe to North America – the feeling from participants was that Europe is ahead of North America, but American regulations are currently developing and shifting at a higher speed.

There is more certainty in Europe, where the UK and France were the first G7 countries to make it mandatory for major corporations to adopt TCFD reporting. This clarity on regulations gives European organisations the opportunity to act as trailblazers in developing climate capabilities.

In contrast, the US Securities and Exchange Commission(SEC) is still drafting its landmark new climate disclosure rule – with organisations still unsure of the new mandate’s exact requirements and when they will come into action(although announcements are expected imminently).[4]There is thus a much higher level of perceived regulatory risk for companies engaging in or developing sustainability-related capabilities in the US.

"if you say you are engaging in ‘Sustainability’, then you need to do it with care"

Organisations should maintain careful oversight of any climate related pledges or undertakings in order to react agilely to the expected introduction of new regulations – if you say you are engaging in ‘Sustainability’, then you need to do it with care. In some cases, attendees noted that this leads to a degree of reticence to work within sustainability due to regulatory challenges. A number of examples were shared where ambitious climate plans were subsequently constricted due to the perceived compliance and regulatory risks.

Labelling & Quantifying Talent, Pivoting Focus & ‘Greenwashing’:

Attendees noted that they frequently see people trying to distance themselves from successful 15+ year careers, instead trying to shed their previous experience in favour of focussing on sustainability.

This results in a disconnect between how they are trying to label themselves professionally and their actual training and work, and where that has the potential to add positive impact. Without this, a wealth of functional knowledge is being forgotten in the chase to be impact driven.

On the hiring side, several attendees observed that they often see job descriptions for climate, sustainability and ESG roles that read as a laundry list, trying to tick every box rather than clearly addressing a specific requirement. There is a need for more concise and targeted job descriptions to give the impression of a proactive and strategic organisation rather than one looking simply to get their foot in the sustainability door.

"these ambitions must be channelled correctly to avoid ‘greenwashing’"

As people look to pivot into climate and sustainability, attendees noted two disparate and equally common profiles: those who pivot due to a genuine interest in climate and sustainability, and those who pivot because they recognise climate and sustainability as a white space and a currently unparalleled opportunity for advancement. Looking to take advantage of a trend and the personal opportunity that it brings is not necessarily a negative. However, attendees cautioned that these ambitions must be channelled correctly to avoid ‘greenwashing’ and hiring managers must be wary of high aspiration champions: those who say they are energetic for the cause or describe themselves as an ‘expert’ without content or results. These individuals often talk the talk on a surface level but are unable to engage in the problem-solving and systems change approach that is frequently necessary for these topics. The individual who sees the opportunity for advancement but also educates themselves and becomes embedded in the space is the individual who typically is best placed to develop most effectively.

There is a need for people who are strategic, have strong content and who can be project managers – this can be one person or a team, but these three qualities are necessary to maximise success. If these qualities can be evidenced in both visibility over prior functional knowledge as well as in clear job descriptions, then hiring managers will be better equipped to build more effective teams.

"the world needs players with high convictions to lead the change"


As the global focus on climate increases, organisations are being pushed out of their comfort zones where sustainability is concerned. There is a huge opportunity for innovation across the market and the world needs players with high convictions to lead the change.

We are beginning to see the market taking ‘historic’ methodologies and pivoting them to apply to ESG and sustainability. E.g., attendees noted seeing ratings agencies buying up old risk models and utilising them for climate risk. Similar strategic approaches are needed for teambuilding. Organisations must consider the role they seek to play and the human resources they need to take action – considering not only traditional hiring methods but also looking at internal and external candidates with diverse, dynamic talents that can be brought to the table.

There is some worry that companies hiding behind ‘ESG’ are allowing for a broader ‘dumbing down of the space’ – as the term is used more and more frequently it is simultaneously becoming difficult to distinguish which companies are doing the ‘real’ work in the crowded climate arena.

Nonetheless, the climate agenda is arguably the largest reallocation of capital since the Great Depression.

How companies build their climate capabilities and teams will in many ways define how well-positioned they are to play a significant role in the global race to net zero and the new energy economy. The market is transforming, and the leaders are now pulling away from the pack.

We would like to thank all of the attendees for their insights during the conversation, we hope it was as illuminating for you as it was for us.

Click here to download the whitepaper in full: Building Brilliant Teams in ESG, Climate and Sustainability.pdf

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