I Took Harvard’s Leading ESG Course
My top take-aways and why you should consider taking it
ESG is a key skill set for any professional.
Environmental, Social and Governance, or ESG, is everywhere. As a consultant and instructor, I wanted to skill up on this key aspect of modern business and learn as much practical information as I could.
So, I researched the top ESG courses and Harvard Extension School’s course, Creating, Implementing, and Improving Corporate Environmental, Social, and Governance Reporting, kept floating to the top. After taking a closer look at the syllabus, I decided to register.
Key aspects of the course
The two instructors — Kevin Hagen (Iron Mountain) and Kevin Wilhelm (Sustainable Business Consulting) — are both seasoned practitioners who bring a wealth of real world experience and case studies to the course content. They also leveraged their extensive networks and invited world-class guest speakers to provide additional insights.
For me, what really made the course valuable is the emphasis on practical skills. I had the opportunity to actually do the work. The course consisted of in-class exercises as well as group assignments that involved working through reporting and data collection skills for a specific company. I also had the opportunity to explore the various ESG frameworks (SASB, GRI, TCFD, CDP, SBTi, etc.), try these skills in a safe environment and learn from my peers.
I am also a teacher (sustainable real estate at the University of Washington), and I know how difficult it can be to teach real-world skills in the academic environment. It’s like trying to teach someone how to fly a plane without ever leaving the ground — it’s just not the same. But in my opinion, this course came as close as you can and the instructors and guest lecturers gave color and texture to the core concepts.
Another key aspect of this course was the cohort of students. My fellow students were other professionals, with varying degrees of experience in ESG, and who were all looking to develop this skill set and make connections. I really enjoyed getting to know the other students and made what I hope are lasting connections.
If it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend this course.¹ If you are looking to skill up on ESG reporting, you should consider taking it. In the interim, here are my key take-aways.
There were many key lessons in this course. These are my top five.
ESG can be a way to bring people together and drive profitability.
ESG is often framed as a negative (i.e. why would we do things differently / we don’t have the staff / this is not the way it has always been done / this will cost money). It is our job as practitioners to demonstrate the business value associated with robust data collection and reporting, and to use that data to develop future business opportunities. Skilled ESG professionals will search for ways to translate potential risks into meaningful business opportunities.
Develop a compelling vision of the future and a solid rationale as to why the new way will ultimately drive profitability.
Make data collection as easy as possible.
There are many different ESG frameworks and the ESG reporting landscape continues to evolve. To avoid having to go back and get more or additional data sets, try to gather all the data you might need, the first time around. Consider related data or data that is germane to other frameworks to help expedite reporting.
This can be tricky but the key is trying to understand why the entities are asking for certain information. This will help guide you to the data you need to collect. And keep in mind that each framework may use slightly different language, but they are all generally trying to get to the same data points (i.e. GHG emissions). The end goal should be to create a data collection processes that is automated (to the extent possible) and repeatable, and ultimately as robust as financial reporting data.
Going through the process of answering the reporting questions can be daunting; try to focus on the process, not the score, and know that the first report will always be the most difficult.
Lead with transparency and authenticity.
Sustainability often gets worse before it gets better. Tracking down data can sometimes reveal blemishes within your organization. Keep in mind that no company is perfect and every organization has to start somewhere.
The key is to set a business-wide expectation of transparency early on in the process.
As you go through the data collection process, resist the urge (and potentially some pressure) to bury bad data or greenwash. Instead, be transparent with stakeholders and the public about areas that need improvement, outline a plan of action that includes priorities, and explain why that plan makes sense given the overall context.
Transparent reporting and a willingness to show imperfections bolsters credibility.
Engage all stakeholders in meaningful conversations — and listen to them.
A robust ESG strategy will ensure that all key stakeholders are identified and engaged. This may require you to use different outreach strategies for different audiences. Keep in mind that tools like materiality assessments can help organizations figure out which areas to prioritize.
Good ESG practitioners help stakeholders understand how the data is not arbitrary, by telling a data story in a way the target audience can hear.
Understand the importance of good Governance.
E, S, and G are all important to complete reporting. That said, the “G” often gets overlooked. Challenge yourself and your organization to think of good governance as the “behind the scenes” structure that drives the rest of the program, long term.
Governance structure is key to achieving environmental and social goals, and can support deeper work and greater accountability with respect to the “E” and the “S.”
 This hopefully goes without saying, but these are just my take-aways based on my experience. Additionally, I have no financial or other interest in this course. I paid full price, and only want to share my experience, for the benefit of other practitioners who may also be looking to skill up in this critical area.