Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
February 2, 2022

The Emerging ESG Leadership Role

As more companies make environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments a part of their long-core purpose and business strategy, they are creating teams with dedicated leaders that are breaking down silos to make ESG a central growth area for their organizations.

To understand this evolution, we recently spoke with a trio of corporate ESG chiefs spearheading their organizations’ efforts. The leaders — Chris Gray, head of ESG at Pfizer; Orlan Boston, Americas ESG Markets Leader at EY; and Nicole Fitzpatrick, head of ESG and deputy general counsel at Akamai Technologies — spoke at a virtual meeting of Boston-area CHROs.

While ESG priorities often vary across industries, our conversation pointed to three key priorities for boards, CEOs and CHROs as they seek to find talent that can drive these efforts into the future.

Unifying ESG

As ESG takes center stage, the first step for many companies is to unify efforts devoted to sustainability, social impact and corporate governance already conducted within different corporate functions. At Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai, a cloud delivery platform powering and protecting digital experiences, various ESG programs remain dispersed across the company — for example, diversity and inclusion within HR, and data privacy within legal. Fitzpatrick noted that Akamai’s ESG office was designed, in part, to provide better collaboration and coordination among the entire organization’s efforts, with the goal of a stronger overall ESG program.

“We talked about how to get all of the parts [of our ESG program] aiming for the same goal — to have a cohesive strategy,” Fitzpatrick said. “While it might look different in Bangalore, India, than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, getting all of the right folks in the room and aligning is key.”

Pfizer’s Chris Gray pointed to multifunctional collaboration in his company’s ESG efforts, in natural areas like HR for DE&I or manufacturing for sustainability, as well as in emerging areas like finance. For example, in 2020 the company issued a $1.25 billion sustainability bond, a first in the biopharmaceutical industry, from which proceeds are being used to help the company manage its environmental impact, strengthen healthcare systems and support equitable patient access to Pfizer’s medicines and vaccines. Success required a true and equal partnership between ESG leadership and finance leadership, Gray said. The partnership followed up in 2021 with a second, $1 billion sustainability bond focused on the company’s COVID-19 response, and a $7 billion ESG-linked revolving credit facility.

“The value for the company is two-fold, both from a reputational standpoint as we try to deliver on our purpose as an organization — breakthroughs that change patients’ lives — and also for financial reasons, because it can save the company money,” Gray said.

The ESG leader skill set

Currently, there is no single background or profile for ESG professionals, and a linear career path still hasn’t been defined. However, the three leaders we spoke with highlighted the key skills any ESG leader may need: the ability to engage key leaders, adeptness at cross-organizational collaboration, and expertise that extends well beyond functional silos.

Orlan Boston, for example, has spent his career as a management consultant, including the past 10 years at EY, where he is a senior partner in the firm’s healthcare and life sciences practice. In tandem with his client-facing roles, Boston has also held a variety of DE&I-related positions, including several years as chief diversity officer at Deloitte, he serves on several nonprofit boards, and he has launched various social change and impact ventures in publishing, documentary and feature filmmaking, civil rights, and philanthropy. In his current client-facing role, Boston helps companies on their ESG and sustainability journeys.

“I’ve got a varied background — a bit of a generalist background — that has helped prepare me for this job,” Orlan said. “It’s leading through influence. Because I’ve worked in the business as a senior partner, I have credibility in getting other leaders at EY and at our clients engaged in the right way.”

Gray’s career trajectory also includes certain building blocks that many companies are finding necessary for the emerging ESG profession. He started as the editor of a life sciences trade journal, followed by four years as a management consultant. In nearly a decade and a half at Pfizer, his work has covered a sequence of corporate affairs roles, including public affairs, international policy and strategic global partnerships.

Gray credits his multifaceted career journey for helping prepare him for his current position. He noted many of the skills needed for a career in ESG, including strong communication skills, and expertise in areas such as regulation, stakeholder engagement, accounting and strategy development.

“My experience as a business editor helps me navigate and spearhead the reporting side of the ESG role,” Gray said. “My consulting experience provided me with a strong understanding of corporate risk mitigation and data controls, as well as to quickly grasp how ESG as a discipline can be embedded across the enterprise. My efforts in policy and public affairs provides me with an edge in understanding the rapidly evolving ESG regulatory landscape. And ESG is really about understanding and communicating the shared value the company creates for a diverse set of stakeholders and partners.”

Fitzpatrick, an attorney by trade, has been on Akamai’s legal team for more than 12 years. Her title includes deputy general counsel in addition to chief ESG officer. She said that placing the new ESG role within legal was the result of some long discussions about how best to position ESG within the organization for the greatest impact.

“Where legal sits in the corporate structure, we collaborate across the organization just by the nature of our role,” Fitzpatrick said. “We also have a lot of risk oversight and management experience. So for us, it just felt like the right place.”

The future of the ESG role

The ESG leadership career path remains in the nascent stages, as leaders, stakeholders and the general public are developing new ways for organizations to act both more sustainably and more socially minded. The steps taken today to integrate ESG ideas across an organization could have a huge payoff down the line. Gray said that one of the lenses through which he sees his role is as a “bridge” between short-term and long-term goals.

“The challenge for many ESG professionals is going to colleagues who are trying to meet their short-term targets and quarterly earnings, and convincing them to consider longer-term, sustainable goals and targets; it can be a tough sell,” Gray said. “The optimal organizational model to drive ESG performance and accountability is still somewhat nebulous. Is better to have an ESG leader embedded in legal, corporate affairs, finance or manufacturing? Alternatively, does it call for its own unique office, one endowed with the authority to drive accountability and value creation across the enterprise? These are great questions for CHROs to consider in partnership with their ESG leaders.”

Boston said that in his work client work at EY, he sees something of two camps when it comes to ESG. The first camp includes those CEOs and boards that see ESG as a compliance and regulatory set of issues. The second camp, however, sees ESG as an opportunity — a forward-looking chance to innovate and think about the future of the business.

“I personally think those in that second camp are the ones that are going to flourish the most,” Boston said. “At the end of the day, sustainability is about are you going to be here five years from now as a company…. What are the actions you need to take now to ensure that sustainability and that future?”