It is becoming increasingly essential for companies to understand and address the effects that externalities can have on their social license.1 The latest McKinsey Global Survey on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues asked more than 1,100 respondents in more than 90 countries how their organizations are rising to this challenge.2 More than nine in ten respondents say that ESG subjects are on their organization’s agenda. While environmental topics are recently the ones making headlines, just one-third of respondents rank environmental issues as their organization’s greatest ESG priority.
Survey respondents report that their organizations are not just paying lip service to ESG: many say their organizations are making meaningful ESG changes that have demonstrable benefits. More than two-thirds of respondents say their organizations have achieved broad impact from their ESG efforts in the past three years, and 43 percent report that their organizations have captured financial value from their ESG investments over that span—suggesting that the full effects of ESG are multivariable and may take time to fully capture. For example, one-third of respondents say their organizations’ work with ESG topics has a strong positive effect on their own commitment to the organization and, in turn, to overall employee retention, consistent with the notion that ESG can underpin both value and values.3
Survey respondents who report that their organizations have both created financial value and increased broader impact from ESG—the two conditions for what we call “ESG momentum”4—point to seven organizational traits.
First, their organizations approach ESG from a growth perspective. The organization’s priorities, respondents report, exceed merely conforming to industry standards or regulatory requirements and aim toward unlocking new opportunities.
Second, they report that their organizations strive to connect with external stakeholders and to be accountable to them.
Third, they identify specific stakeholder priorities for which their organizations are uniquely placed to excel; respondents say, further, that their organizations strive to make these priorities a core part of their business strategy.
Fourth, respondents say their organizations empower a specific executive in the C-suite to work with the CEO in defining and achieving ESG ambitions.
Fifth, their organizations build a central ESG team—which is not the same as building a large team. Respondents also say their organizations bring together talent from across the organization to help meet ESG goals.
Sixth, their organizations make considered efforts to embed purpose into multiple aspects of their business.
Seventh, their organizations tie ESG metrics to compensation, using KPIs to gauge progress on ESG objectives.
All told, survey respondents who identify their organizations as leading in ESG see their efforts as a means of both protecting and creating value.5
In the survey, 93 percent of respondents say at least one ESG dimension—an environmental, social, or governance topic—is on their organization’s agenda. While survey responses suggest that organizations broadly seem to recognize the importance of ESG overall, approaches and areas of focus vary by sector, industry, and region, consistent with differences in materiality.
Responses indicate that organizations in many industries are going beyond merely trying to meet regulatory requirements and view ESG as a growth opportunity. Promoting growth1 is the reason that respondents most frequently cite for their organizations addressing ESG topics. This is a particularly common motivator for organizations within the energy sector, while compliance with regulations and industry norms are the most-cited motives by respondents in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, financial services, and the public and social sectors.
The ESG dimensions receiving business leaders’ focus vary by geography and company size. While environmental issues are increasingly being featured in headlines globally, responses suggest that Europe is the only region where environmental topics tend to outrank governance on leaders’ agendas. According to respondents, social topics are of outsize concern among organizations based in North America, where diversity, equity, and inclusion issues have come to the forefront in recent years. On the other hand, respondents working for organizations with headquarters in Asia–Pacific and developing markets tend to rank governance topics as their organizations’ most important ESG priorities.1
Looking by company size, respondents at organizations with annual revenues of $1 billion or more are much more likely than others to say environmental topics outrank social and governance dimensions on their leaders’ agendas (see sidebar, “What respondents say larger companies are doing differently”).
Seven traits that respondents say organizations leading on ESG dimensions have in common
Our findings reveal seven traits of organizations that, respondents report, have developed clear ESG momentum. We compare responses from survey participants who say they work for leading, top-decile organizations against those who say they work for the lowest-decile organizations, as scored by self-reported ESG progress.6
1. Sights set on growth. Respondents who report working for an organization leading on ESG dimensions are 1.5 times more likely than respondents from reported bottom-decile organizations to say their organizations approach ESG topics with the aim of promoting growth. Respondents from the lowest-decile organizations, on the other hand, are 2.8 times more likely to say ESG efforts are focused on conforming to industry standards or regulatory requirements.
2. Board directors and senior leaders who connect with external stakeholders. Respondents who report that their organizations have built ESG momentum are more likely than those at reported lowest-decile organizations to say their organization’s board members, CEOs, and CFOs connect with external stakeholders and feel accountable to them.
Also, the higher that respondents say external engagement is on their board’s and CEO’s agenda, the more progress they report that the organization has made with its ESG impact over the past three years. For example, respondents who say their organization’s CEO makes external engagement their top priority are three times as likely as those reporting it as a top ten priority to say their organization has seen significant improvement in its ESG impact. Moreover, the higher that respondents say ESG is on the CEO’s agenda, the more likely they are to report that their organization has captured significant value from ESG investments.
3. Prioritization of strengths that matter to stakeholders. Respondents who report their organizations as leading on ESG dimensions are much more likely than respondents at reported lowest-decile organizations to find that their organizations have identified business-model-specific ESG issues, particularly those issues that, respondents say, matter most to their external stakeholders. These organizations, respondents further report, identify and concentrate on the specific stakeholder priorities for which their organizations are uniquely placed to excel rather than diffuse ESG efforts across many avenues.1
4. An ESG leader in the C-suite. Most respondents at organizations that, according to survey results, have built significant ESG momentum report their organization’s ESG teams are led by a member of the C-suite. This executive is empowered to define ESG ambitions and strategy with the CEO, ensure collaboration among the other members of the executive team, and orchestrate initiatives across the organization.
5. A central team. Survey results suggest that having a central ESG team or function can enable ESG momentum: respondents who say their organizations are furthest ahead on ESG dimensions are much more likely than those at reported lowest-decile organizations to report that their organizations have such a team, even if the team includes five or fewer people. These teams can manage ESG-strategy- and target-setting processes, coordinate delivery of initiatives and ESG reporting across the organization, and ensure that ESG considerations are embedded into employees’ day-to-day behaviors. They also coordinate across functions so that efforts are not siloed within one department.
In fact, bringing together talent from across the organization to help meet ESG goals is also a reported hallmark of leading organizations. Respondents reporting that their organizations have developed ESG momentum are more likely than those in the lowest decile to report that their employers are very effective at bringing the best talent together from across functions to work on ESG projects.
6. Purpose embedded throughout the organization. Respondents who report that their organizations are leading on ESG dimensions say their organizations are very effective at embedding purpose into various aspects of their business, such as their product or brand portfolio and their talent-management efforts. By embedding purpose into organizational culture, the survey suggests, organizations can build an appetite for change that can bolster ESG initiatives.
7. Incentives tied to ESG metrics. Respondents from organizations reported to have the most ESG momentum are nearly three times as likely as respondents from reported bottom-decile organizations to observe that their organizations tie CEOs’ and CFOs’ financial incentives to ESG metrics. Embedding key ESG impact metrics into leaders’ and employees’ incentives can demonstrate, both internally and externally, that ESG is a priority for the organization. It also helps ensure accountability for initiatives. An effective ESG incentive structure uses clear metrics, based on meaningful KPIs that gauge progress on key ESG objectives.1
Not all organizations identified by respondents as ESG leaders have all seven of these components in place. But survey responses suggest how consistently these traits are celebrated by those reporting more momentum and value realization and how critical it is for organizations to go beyond mere declarations of intent. Embedding ESG in an organization manifests in well-considered, focused ESG initiatives that are core to the business model. While embedding ESG is complex, the value that ESG efforts can protect—and create—can be compelling.7