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Shining the Spotlight


On ESG as a driver for market success

Kurt Harrison,

Managing Director and Founder, Global Sustainability Practice, Russell Reynolds Associates
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In a recent interview for Infosys, Joel Makower of GreenBiz spoke with Kurt Harrison, the founder of a global sustainability practice at one of the world’s leading executive search and advisory firms, Russell Reynolds.

Harrison says he moved into the sustainability space five or six years ago, after a career on Wall Street, after the firm’s clients in asset management and private equity began inquiring about ESG. Since then, he’s seen an evolution in the backgrounds of those filling ESG roles. While they tended to come out of CSR or philanthropy, “that has really evolved quite aggressively to being much more focused on business value creation. . . These are roles that are going to help an organization differentiate itself in the market, better position their products, better attract next-generation talent who want to work for mission-driven organizations.”

That’s going to deliver far-reaching benefits, he says, “keeping their investors happy, keeping their regulators happy, and really helping the organization be prepared for long-term success, which is what sustainability is all about.”

Given the focus on business value creation, Harrison says that people moving into these roles tend to have very strong business backgrounds. “They grew up in the industry of whatever industry they happen to be working in, and learn the industry from the ground floor up, which makes them credible with the line of business leaders that they need to partner with to truly integrate sustainability throughout an organization.”

As more companies have prioritized ESG, a war for talent has emerged – particularly during 2020 to 2022, says Harrison, when senior executives focused on ESG and sustainability “was arguably the most actively sought after sector of the talent market.”  While he says it has slowed down some, “the demand is not going away . . . but it's a different kind of demand. When you’re recruiting a head of ESG, that person is more focused on policy, on strategy, on building a framework to implement across the organization and investor engagement.”

There’s also heightened interest, he says, in leaders who can deliver a more specific climate competency, especially around decarbonization. “That means taking the policy and the strategy that's been created by the ESG team and integrating that across the organization itself and or its portfolio companies if it's in financial services, but also someone who can really deliver the implementation of that and drive the decarbonization of the operation at numerous levels.”

As for reporting responsibilities of individuals, such as the head of ESG or a chief sustainability officer, Harrison says that what’s important is to “report to the individual within the organization who can best position this person to have the access and influence they need to be successful both internally and externally.” He says that could be the CEO, the CFO, the general counsel, or the head of a business unit. “Every organization has that person who can really help this individual achieve what the organization wants him or her to achieve.”

Asked by Makower what advice he would give to people who want to become sustainability leaders inside their companies, Harrison says that “the most important thing is to be really good at what you do and be an expert within your specific industry. Be a business leader first. Really understand the core dimensions of your business, whatever that business happens to be, and be viewed as a senior leader.”

Looking to the future, Harrison says one of the big changes could be a decoupling of ESG, noting that “each of the dimensions has become so important and so complex and so differentiated that it’s really hard to ask one person or one team or one function to be best-in-class in all three of those categories.”  This could help reduce some of the political controversy around ESG, he says, while also “future proofing your organization for long-term success.”